Did big data tip it for Brexit?

A global op­er­a­tion col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion on UK vot­ers, and linked to bil­lion­aire friends of Don­ald Trump, is ac­cused of seek­ing to in­flu­ence the vote to leave the EU, writes Ca­role Cad­wal­ladr

The Guardian Weekly - - WEEKLY REVIEW -

In Jan­uary 2013, an Amer­i­can post­grad­u­ate called So­phie was pass­ing through Lon­don when she called up the boss of a firm where she’d pre­vi­ously in­terned. The com­pany, SCL Elec­tions, went on to be bought by Robert Mercer, a se­cre­tive hedge fund bil­lion­aire, re­named Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, and achieved a cer­tain no­to­ri­ety as the data an­a­lyt­ics firm that played a role in both the Trump and Brexit cam­paigns. But all of this was still to come. Lon­don in 2013 was still bask­ing in the af­ter­glow of the Olympics. Bri­tain had not yet Brex­ited. The world had not yet turned. “That was be­fore we be­came this dark, dystopian data com­pany that gave the world Trump,” a for­mer Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica em­ployee, who I’ll call Paul, tells me. “It was back when we were still just a psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare firm.”

Was that re­ally what you called it, I ask him. Psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare? “Totally. That’s what it is. Psy­ops. Psy­cho­log­i­cal op­er­a­tions – the same meth­ods the mil­i­tary use to ef­fect mass sen­ti­ment change. It’s what they mean by win­ning ‘hearts and minds’. We were just do­ing it to win elec­tions in the kind of devel­op­ing coun­tries that don’t have many rules.”

Why would any­one want to in­tern with a psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare firm, I ask him. And he looks at me like I am mad. “It was like work­ing for [the Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence agency] MI6 . Only it’s MI6 for hire. It was very posh, very English, run by an old Eto­nian and you got to do some re­ally cool things. Fly all over the world. You were work­ing with the pres­i­dent of Kenya or Ghana or wher­ever. It’s not like elec­tion cam­paigns in the west. You got to do all sorts of crazy shit.”

On that day in Jan­uary 2013, So­phie met up with SCL’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, Alexan­der Nix, and gave him the germ of an idea. “She said, ‘You re­ally need to get into data.’ She re­ally drummed it home to Alexan­der. And she sug­gested he meet this firm that be­longed to some­one she knew about through her fa­ther.”

Who’s her fa­ther?

“Eric Sch­midt.”

Eric Sch­midt – the chair­man of Google?

“Yes. And she sug­gested Alexan­der should meet this com­pany called Palan­tir.”

I had been speak­ing to for­mer em­ploy­ees of Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica for months and heard dozens of hair-rais­ing sto­ries, but it was still a gob­s­mack­ing mo­ment. To any­one con­cerned about sur­veil­lance, Palan­tir is prac­ti­cally now a trig­ger word. The data-min­ing firm has contracts with gov­ern­ments all over the world – in­clud­ing GCHQ and the NSA. It’s owned by Peter Thiel, the bil­lion­aire co-founder of eBay and PayPal, who be­came Sil­i­con Val­ley’s first vo­cal sup­porter of Trump. In some ways, Sch­midt’s daugh­ter show­ing up to make an in­tro­duc­tion to Palan­tir is just another weird de­tail in the weird­est story I have ever re­searched. A weird but telling de­tail. Be­cause it goes to the heart of why the story of Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica is one of the most pro­foundly un­set­tling of our time. So­phie Sch­midt now works for another Sil­i­con Val­ley megafirm: Uber. And what’s clear is that the power and dom­i­nance of Sil­i­con Val­ley – Google and Facebook and a small hand­ful of oth­ers – are at the cen­tre of the global tec­tonic shift we are cur­rently wit­ness­ing.

It also re­veals a crit­i­cal and gap­ing hole in the po­lit­i­cal de­bate in Bri­tain. Be­cause what is hap­pen­ing in Amer­ica and what is hap­pen­ing in Bri­tain are en­twined. Brexit and Trump are en­twined. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s links to Rus­sia and Bri­tain are en­twined. And Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica is one point of fo­cus through which we can see all these re­la­tion­ships in play; it also re­veals the ele­phant in the room as Bri­tain hur­tles into a gen­eral elec­tion: the coun­try is ty­ing its fu­ture to an Amer­ica that is be­ing re­made – in a rad­i­cal and alarm­ing way – by Trump.

There are three strands to this story. How the foun­da­tions of an au­thor­i­tar­ian sur­veil­lance state are be­ing laid in the US. How Bri­tish democ­racy was sub­verted through a covert, far-reach­ing plan of co­or­di­na­tion en­abled by a US bil­lion­aire. And how we are in the midst of a mas­sive land grab for power by bil­lion­aires via our data. Data which is be­ing silently amassed, har­vested and stored. Who­ever owns this data owns the fu­ture.

My en­try point into this story be­gan, as so many things do, with a late-night Google. Last De­cem­ber, I took an un­set­tling tumble into a worm­hole of Google au­to­com­plete sug­ges­tions that ended with “did the holo­caust hap­pen”. And an en­tire page of re­sults that claimed it didn’t. Google’s al­go­rithm had been gamed by ex­trem­ist sites and it was Jonathan Al­bright, a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Elon Univer­sity, North Carolina, who helped me get to grips with what I was see­ing. He was the first per­son to map and un­cover an en­tire “alt-right” news and in­for­ma­tion ecosys­tem and he was the one who first in­tro­duced me to Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. He called the com­pany a cen­tral point in the right’s “pro­pa­ganda ma­chine”, a line I quoted, in an ar­ti­cle for the Ob­server news­pa­per, in reference to its work for the Trump elec­tion cam­paign and the “Leave” cam­paign urg­ing peo­ple in the UK to vote for Brexit in the 2016 ref­er­en­dum.

That led to a sec­ond ar­ti­cle fea­tur­ing Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica – as a cen­tral node in the al­ter­na­tive news and in­for­ma­tion net­work that I be­lieved Mercer and Steve Ban­non, the key Trump aide who is now his chief strate­gist, were cre­at­ing. I found ev­i­dence sug­gest­ing they were on a strate­gic mis­sion to smash the main­stream me­dia and re­place it with one com­pris­ing al­ter­na­tive facts, fake his­tory and rightwing pro­pa­ganda.

Mercer is a bril­liant com­puter sci­en­tist, a pi­o­neer in early ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, and the co-owner of one of the most suc­cess­ful hedge funds on the planet (with a grav­ity-de­fy­ing 71.8% an­nual re­turn). And, he is also, I dis­cov­ered, good friends with Nigel Farage, leader of the UK In­de­pen­dence party (Ukip) in the leadup to the Brexit vote. Andy Wig­more, Leave.EU’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor, told me that it was Mercer who had di­rected his com­pany, Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, to “help” the Leave cam­paign.

The sec­ond ar­ti­cle trig­gered two in­ves­ti­ga­tions, which are both con­tin­u­ing: one by the UK’s In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sioner’s Of­fice into the pos­si­ble il­le­gal use of data. And a sec­ond by the UK Elec­toral Com­mis­sion that is “fo­cused on whether one or more do­na­tions – in­clud­ing ser­vices – ac­cepted by Leave.EU was ‘im­per­mis­si­ble’”. What I then dis­cov­ered was that Mercer’s role in the ref­er­en­dum went far be­yond this. Far be­yond the ju­ris­dic­tion of any UK law. The key to un­der­stand­ing how a mo­ti­vated and de­ter­mined bil­lion­aire could by­pass Bri­tish elec­toral laws rests on Ag­gre­gateIQ, an ob­scure web an­a­lyt­ics com­pany based in an of­fice above a shop in Vic­to­ria, Bri­tish Columbia.

It was with Ag­gre­gateIQ that Vote Leave (the of­fi­cial cam­paign to leave the EU, one of sev­eral si­mul­ta­ne­ous cam­paigns urg­ing a vote for Brexit) chose to spend £3.9m ($5m)– more than half its of­fi­cial £7m cam­paign bud­get. As did three other af­fil­i­ated Leave cam­paigns: BeLeave, Vet­er­ans for Bri­tain and the Demo­cratic Union­ist party, spend­ing a fur­ther £757,750. “Co­or­di­na­tion” be­tween cam­paigns is pro­hib­ited un­der UK elec­toral law, un­less cam­paign ex­pen­di­ture is de­clared, jointly. It wasn’t. Vote Leave says the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion “looked into this” and gave it “a clean bill of health”.

How did an ob­scure Cana­dian com­pany come to play such a piv­otal role in Brexit? It’s a ques­tion that Martin Moore, di­rec­tor of the cen­tre for the study of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, me­dia and power at King’s Col­lege Lon­don has been ask­ing too. “I went through all the Leave cam­paign in­voices when the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion up­loaded them to its site in Fe­bru­ary. And I kept on dis­cov­er­ing all these huge amounts go­ing to a com­pany that not only had I never heard of, but that there was prac­ti­cally noth­ing at all about on the in­ter­net. More money was spent with Ag­gre­gateIQ than with any other com­pany in any other cam­paign in the en­tire ref­er­en­dum. All I found, at that time, was a one-page web­site and that was it. It was an ab­so­lute mys­tery.”

Moore con­trib­uted to a Lon­don School of Eco­nomics re­port pub­lished in April that con­cluded the UK’s elec­toral laws were “weak and help­less” in the face of new forms of dig­i­tal cam­paign­ing. Off­shore com­pa­nies, money poured into data­bases, un­fet­tered third par­ties … the caps on spend­ing had come off. The laws that had al­ways un­der­pinned Bri­tain’s elec­toral laws were no longer fit for pur­pose. Laws, the re­port said, that needed “ur­gently re­view­ing by par­lia­ment”.

Ag­gre­gateIQ holds the key to un­rav­el­ling another com­pli­cated net­work of in­flu­ence that Mercer has cre­ated. A source emailed me to say he had found that Ag­gre­gateIQ’s ad­dress and tele­phone num­ber cor­re­sponded to a com­pany listed on Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica’s web­site as its over­seas of­fice: “SCL Canada”. A day later, that on­line reference van­ished.

There had to be a con­nec­tion be­tween the two com­pa­nies. Be­tween the var­i­ous Leave cam­paigns. Be­tween the ref­er­en­dum and Mercer. It was too big a co­in­ci­dence. But ev­ery­one – Ag­gre­gateIQ, Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, Leave.EU, Vote Leave – de­nied it. Ag­gre­gateIQ had just been a short-term “con­trac­tor” to Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. There was noth­ing to dis­prove this. We pub­lished the known facts. On 29 March, ar­ti­cle 50 was trig­gered. Then I meet Paul, the first of two sources for­merly em­ployed by Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. He is in his late 20s and bears men­tal scars from his time there. “It’s al­most like post-trau­matic shock. It was so… messed up. It hap­pened so fast. I just woke up one morn­ing and found we’d turned into the Repub­li­can fas­cist party. I still can’t get my head around it.” He laughed when I told him the frus­trat­ing mys­tery that was Ag­gre­gateIQ. “Find Chris Wylie,” he said.

Who’s Chris Wylie? “He’s the one who brought data and mi­cro-tar­get­ing [in­di­vid­u­alised po­lit­i­cal mes­sages] to Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. And he’s from west Canada. It’s only be­cause of him that Ag­gre­gateIQ ex­ist. They’re his friends. He’s the one who brought them in.” There wasn’t just a re­la­tion­ship be­tween Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica and Ag­gre­gateIQ, Paul told me. They were in­ti­mately en­twined, key nodes in Robert Mercer’s dis­trib­uted em­pire. “The Cana­di­ans were our back of­fice. They built our soft­ware for us. They held our data­base. If Ag­gre­gateIQ is in­volved then Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica is in­volved. And if Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica is in­volved, then Mercer and Ban­non are in­volved. You need to find Chris Wylie.” I did find Wylie. He re­fused to com­ment.

Key to un­der­stand­ing how data would trans­form the com­pany is know­ing where it came from. And it’s a let­ter from “Di­rec­tor of De­fence Op­er­a­tions, SCL Group”, that helped me re­alise this. It’s from “Com­man­der Steve Tatham, PhD, MPhil, Royal Navy (rtd)” com­plain­ing about my use in my Mercer ar­ti­cle of the word “dis­in­for­ma­tion”. I wrote back to him point­ing out ref­er­ences in pa­pers he’d writ­ten to “de­cep­tion” and “pro­pa­ganda”, which I said I un­der­stood to be “roughly syn­ony­mous with ‘dis­in­for­ma­tion’.” It’s only later that it strikes me how strange it is that I’m cor­re­spond­ing with a re­tired navy com­man­der about mil­i­tary strate­gies that may have been used in Bri­tish and US elec­tions.

What’s been lost in the

US cov­er­age of this “data an­a­lyt­ics” firm is the un­der­stand­ing of where the firm came from: deep within the mil­i­tary-in­dus­trial com­plex. A weird Bri­tish cor­ner of it pop­u­lated, as the mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment in Bri­tain is, by old-school Tories. Ge­of­frey Pat­tie, a for­mer UK par­lia­men­tary un­der-sec­re­tary of state for de­fence pro­cure­ment and di­rec­tor of Mar­coni De­fence Sys­tems, used to be on the board, and Lord Mar­land – the pro-Brexit trade envoy of for­mer Bri­tish prime min­is­ter David Cameron – a share­holder.

Steve Tatham was the head of psy­ops for Bri­tish forces in Afghanista­n. The Ob­server has seen let­ters en­dors­ing him from the UK Min­istry of De­fence, the For­eign Of­fice and Nato. SCL/Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica was not some startup cre­ated by a cou­ple of guys with a lap­top. It’s ef­fec­tively part of the Bri­tish de­fence es­tab­lish­ment. And, now, too, the US de­fence es­tab­lish­ment. An ex-com­mand­ing of­fi­cer of the US Marine Corps op­er­a­tions cen­tre, Chris Naler, has re­cently joined Iota Global, a part­ner of the SCL group.

This is not just a story about so­cial psy­chol­ogy and data an­a­lyt­ics. It has to be un­der­stood in terms of a mil­i­tary con­trac­tor us­ing mil­i­tary strate­gies on a civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. David Miller, a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Bath Univer­sity and an au­thor­ity in psy­ops and pro­pa­ganda, says it is “an ex­tra­or­di­nary scan­dal that this should be any­where near a democ­racy. It should be clear to vot­ers where in­for­ma­tion is com­ing from, and if it’s not trans­par­ent or open where it’s com­ing from, it raises the ques­tion of whether we are ac­tu­ally liv­ing in a democ­racy or not.”

Paul and David, another ex-Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica em­ployee, were work­ing at the firm when it in­tro­duced mass data-har­vest­ing to its psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare tech­niques. “It brought psy­chol­ogy, pro­pa­ganda and tech­nol­ogy to­gether in this pow­er­ful new way,” David tells me. And it was Facebook that made it pos­si­ble. It was from Facebook that Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica ob­tained its vast dataset in the first place.

Ear­lier, psy­chol­o­gists at Cam­bridge Univer­sity har­vested Facebook data (legally) for re­search pur­poses and pub­lished pi­o­neer­ing peer-re­viewed work about de­ter­min­ing per­son­al­ity traits, po­lit­i­cal par­ti­san­ship, sex­u­al­ity and much more from peo­ple’s Facebook “likes”. And SCL/Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica con­tracted a sci­en­tist at the univer­sity, Dr Alek­sandr Ko­gan, to har­vest new Facebook data. And he did so by pay­ing peo­ple to take a per­son­al­ity quiz that also al­lowed not just their Facebook pro­files to be har­vested, but also those of their friends – a process then al­lowed by the so­cial net­work.

Facebook was the source of the psy­cho­log­i­cal in­sights that en­abled Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica to tar­get in­di­vid­u­als. It was also the mech­a­nism that en­abled them to be de­liv­ered on a large scale. The com­pany also (per­fectly legally) bought con­sumer datasets – on ev­ery­thing from mag­a­zine sub­scrip­tions to air­line travel – and uniquely it ap­pended these with the psych data to voter files. It matched all this in­for­ma­tion to peo­ple’s ad­dresses, their phone num­bers and of­ten their email ad­dresses. “The goal is to cap­ture ev­ery sin­gle as­pect of ev­ery voter’s in­for­ma­tion en­vi­ron­ment,” said David. “And the per­son­al­ity data en­abled Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica to craft in­di­vid­ual mes­sages.”

Find­ing “per­suad­able” vot­ers is key for any cam­paign and with its trea­sure trove of data, Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica could tar­get peo­ple high in neu­roti­cism, for ex­am­ple, with images of im­mi­grants “swamp­ing” the coun­try. The key is find­ing emo­tional trig­gers for each in­di­vid­ual voter. Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica worked on cam­paigns in sev­eral key states for a Repub­li­can po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee. Its key ob­jec­tive, ac­cord­ing to a memo the Ob­server has seen, was “voter dis­en­gage­ment” and “to per­suade Demo­crat vot­ers to stay at home”: a pro­foundly dis­qui­et­ing tactic. It has pre­vi­ously been claimed that sup­pres­sion tac­tics were used in the cam­paign, but this doc­u­ment pro­vides the first ac­tual ev­i­dence.

But does it work? One of the crit­i­cisms that has been lev­elled at my and oth­ers’ ar­ti­cles is that Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica’s “spe­cial sauce” has been over­sold. Is what it is do­ing any dif­fer­ent from any other po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tancy?

“It’s not a po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tancy,” says David. “You have to un­der­stand this is not a nor­mal com­pany in any way. I don’t think Mercer even cares if it ever makes any money. It’s the prod­uct of a bil­lion­aire spend­ing huge amounts of money to build his own ex­per­i­men­tal sci­ence lab, to test what works, to find tiny sliv­ers of in­flu­ence that can tip an elec­tion. Robert Mercer did not in­vest in this firm un­til it ran a bunch of pilots – con­trolled tri­als. This is one of the smartest com­puter sci­en­tists in the world. He is not go­ing to splash $15m on bull­shit.”

Tam­sin Shaw, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy at New York Univer­sity, helps me un­der­stand the con­text. She has re­searched the US mil­i­tary’s fund­ing and use of psy­cho­log­i­cal re­search for use in tor­ture. “The ca­pac­ity for this sci­ence to be used to ma­nip­u­late emo­tions is very well estab­lished. This is mil­i­tary-funded tech­nol­ogy that has been har­nessed by a global plu­toc­racy and is be­ing used to sway elec­tions in ways that peo­ple can’t even see, don’t even re­alise is hap­pen­ing to them,” she says. “It’s about ex­ploit­ing ex­ist­ing phe­nom­e­non like na­tion­al­ism and then us­ing it to ma­nip­u­late peo­ple at the mar­gins. To have so much data in the hands of a bunch of in­ter­na­tional plu­to­crats to do with it what they will is ab­so­lutely chill­ing.

“We are in an in­for­ma­tion war and bil­lion­aires are buy­ing up these com­pa­nies, which are then em­ployed to go to work in the heart of gov­ern­ment. That’s a very wor­ry­ing sit­u­a­tion.” A project that Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica car­ried out in Trinidad in 2013 brings all the el­e­ments in this story to­gether. Just as Mercer be­gan his ne­go­ti­a­tions with SCL boss Alexan­der Nix about an ac­qui­si­tion, SCL was re­tained by sev­eral gov­ern­ment min­is­ters in Trinidad and Tobago. The brief in­volved devel­op­ing a mi­cro-tar­get­ing pro­gramme for the govern­ing party of the time. And Ag­gre­gateIQ – the

same com­pany in­volved in de­liv­er­ing Brexit for Vote Leave – was brought in to build the tar­get­ing plat­form. David said: “The stan­dard SCL/CA method is that you get a gov­ern­ment con­tract from the rul­ing party. And this pays for the po­lit­i­cal work. So, it’s of­ten some bull­shit health project that’s just a cover for get­ting the min­is­ter re-elected. But in this case, our gov­ern­ment con­tacts were with Trinidad’s na­tional se­cu­rity coun­cil.”

The se­cu­rity work was to be the prize for the po­lit­i­cal work. Doc­u­ments seen by the Ob­server show that this was a pro­posal to cap­ture cit­i­zens’ brows­ing his­tory en masse, record­ing phone con­ver­sa­tions and ap­ply­ing nat­u­ral lan­guage process­ing to the recorded voice data to con­struct a na­tional po­lice data­base, com­plete with scores for each ci­ti­zen on their propen­sity to com­mit crime.

“The plan put to the min­is­ter was Mi­nor­ity Re­port. It was pre-crime. And the fact that Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica is now work­ing in­side the Pen­tagon is, I think, ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fy­ing,” said David.

These doc­u­ments throw light on a sig­nif­i­cant and un­der-re­ported as­pect of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. The com­pany that helped Trump achieve power in the first place has now been awarded contracts in the Pen­tagon and the US state depart­ment. Its for­mer vice-pres­i­dent, Ban­non, now sits in the White House. It is also re­ported to be in dis­cus­sions for “mil­i­tary and home­land se­cu­rity work”.

In the US, the gov­ern­ment is bound by strict laws about what data it can col­lect on in­di­vid­u­als. But, for pri­vate com­pa­nies any­thing goes. Is it un­rea­son­able to see in this the pos­si­ble be­gin­nings of an au­thor­i­tar­ian sur­veil­lance state? A state that is bring­ing cor­po­rate in­ter­ests into the heart of the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Doc­u­ments de­tail Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica is in­volved with many other right-lean­ing bil­lion­aires, in­clud­ing Ru­pert Mur­doch. One memo ref­er­ences Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica try­ing to place an ar­ti­cle with a journalist in Mur­doch’s Wall Street Jour­nal: “RM re-chan­neled and con­nected with Jamie McCauley from Robert Thom­son News Corp of­fice,” it says.

It makes me think again about the story in­volv­ing So­phie Sch­midt, Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica and Palan­tir. Is it a telling de­tail, or is it a clue to some­thing else go­ing on? Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica and Palan­tir both de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle on whether they had any re­la­tion­ship. But wit­nesses and emails con­firm that meet­ings be­tween Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica and Palan­tir took place in 2013. The pos­si­bil­ity of a work­ing re­la­tion­ship was at least dis­cussed. Fur­ther doc­u­ments seen by the Ob­server con­firm that at least one se­nior Palan­tir em­ployee con­sulted with Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica in re­la­tion to the Trinidad project and later po­lit­i­cal work in the US. But at the time, I’m told, Palan­tir de­cided it was too much of a rep­u­ta­tional risk for a more for­mal ar­range­ment. There was no up­side to it. Palan­tir is a com­pany that is trusted to han­dle vast datasets on UK and US cit­i­zens for GCHQ and the NSA, as well as many other coun­tries.

Now though, they are both owned by ide­o­log­i­cally aligned bil­lion­aires: Mercer and Thiel. The Trump cam­paign has said that Thiel helped it with data. A cam­paign that was led by Ban­non, who was then at Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. A lead­ing Bri­tish lawyer, a QC who spends a lot of time in the in­ves­ti­ga­tory pow­ers tri­bunal, said that the prob­lem with this tech­nol­ogy was that it all de­pended on whose hands it was in. “On the one hand, it’s be­ing done by com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ments who say ‘you can trust us, we are good and demo­cratic and bake cakes at the week­end’. But then the same ex­per­tise can also be sold on to which­ever re­pres­sive regime.”

In Bri­tain, we still trust our gov­ern­ment. We re­spect our author­i­ties to up­hold our laws. We trust the rule of law. We be­lieve we live in a free and fair democ­racy. Which is what, I be­lieve, makes the last part of this story so pro­foundly un­set­tling.

The de­tails of the Trinidad project fi­nally un­locked the mys­tery that was Ag­gre­gateIQ. Trinidad was SCL’s first project us­ing big data for mi­cro-tar­get­ing be­fore the firm was ac­quired by Mercer. It was the model that Mercer was buy­ing into. And it brought to­gether all the play­ers: the Cam­bridge psy­chol­o­gist Alek­sandr Ko­gan, Ag­gre­gateIQ, Chris Wylie, and two other in­di­vid­u­als who would play a role in this story: Mark Get­tle­son, a fo­cus group ex­pert who had pre­vi­ously worked for the Lib Dems. And Thomas Bor­wick, the son of Vic­to­ria Bor­wick, the Con­ser­va­tive MP for Kensington.

When my ar­ti­cle link­ing Mercer and Leave.EU was pub­lished in Fe­bru­ary, no one was more up­set about it than for­mer Con­ser­va­tive party ad­viser Do­minic Cum­mings, the cam­paign strate­gist for Vote Leave. He launched an irate Twit­ter tirade. The piece was “full of er­rors & it­self spreads dis­in­for­ma­tion” “CA had ~0% role in Brexit ref­er­en­dum”. A week later the Ob­server re­vealed Ag­gre­gateIQ’s pos­si­ble link to Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. Cum­mings’s Twit­ter feed went quiet. He didn’t re­turn my mes­sages or my emails.

Ques­tions had al­ready been swirling about whether there had been any co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the Leave cam­paigns. In the week be­fore the ref­er­en­dum, Vote Leave do­nated money to two other Leave groups – £625,000 to BeLeave, run by fash­ion stu­dent Dar­ren Grimes, and £100,000 to Vet­er­ans for Bri­tain, who both then spent this money with Ag­gre­gateIQ. The Elec­toral Com­mis­sion has writ­ten to Ag­gre­gateIQ. A source close to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion said that Ag­gre­gateIQ re­sponded by say­ing it had signed a non-dis­clo­sure agree­ment. And since it was out­side Bri­tish ju­ris­dic­tion, that was the end of it. Vote Leave refers to this as the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion giv­ing it “a clean bill of health”.

On his blog, Cum­mings has writ­ten thousands of words about the ref­er­en­dum cam­paign. What is miss­ing is any de­tails about his data sci­en­tists. He “hired physi­cists” is all he’ll say. In the books on Brexit, other mem­bers of the team talk about “Dom’s as­tro­physi­cists”, who he kept “a tightly guarded se­cret”. They built mod­els, us­ing data “scraped” off Facebook.

Fi­nally, after weeks of

This isn’t about Re­main or Leave … it’s about the first step into an in­creas­ingly un­demo­cratic world

mes­sages, he sent me an email. We were agreed on one thing, it turned out. He wrote: “The law/reg­u­la­tory agen­cies are such a joke the re­al­ity is that any­body who wanted to cheat the law could do it eas­ily with­out peo­ple re­al­is­ing.” But, he says, “by en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to fo­cus on non­sto­ries like Mercer’s nonex­is­tent role in the ref­er­en­dum you are ob­scur­ing these im­por­tant is­sues”.

And to fi­nally an­swer the ques­tion about how Vote Leave found this ob­scure Cana­dian com­pany on the other side of the planet, he wrote: “Some­one found AIQ [Ag­gre­gateIQ] on the in­ter­net and in­ter­viewed them on the phone, then told me – let’s go with these guys. They were clearly more com­pe­tent than any oth­ers we’d spo­ken to in Lon­don.”

The most un­for­tu­nate as­pect of this – for Cum­mings – is that this isn’t cred­i­ble. It’s the work of mo­ments to put a date fil­ter on Google search and dis­cover that in late 2015 or early 2016, there are no Google hits for “Ag­gre­gate IQ”. There is no press cov­er­age. No ran­dom men­tions. It doesn’t even throw up its web­site. I have caught Cum­mings in what ap­pears to be an al­ter­na­tive fact.

But what is an ac­tual fact is that Get­tle­son and Bor­wick, both pre­vi­ously con­sul­tants for SCL and Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, were both core mem­bers of the Vote Leave team. They’re both in the of­fi­cial Vote Leave doc­u­ments lodged with the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion, though they coyly de­scribe their pre­vi­ous work for SCL/Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica as “mi­cro-tar­get­ing in An­tigua and Trinidad” and “di­rect com­mu­ni­ca­tions for sev­eral PACs, Se­nate and Gover­nor cam­paigns”. And Bor­wick wasn’t just any mem­ber of the team. He was Vote Leave’s chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer.

This story may in­volve a com­plex web of con­nec­tions, but it all comes back to Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. It all comes back to Mercer. Be­cause the con­nec­tions must have been ev­i­dent. “Ag­gre­gateIQ may not have be­longed to the Mercers but they ex­ist within his world,” David told me. “Al­most all of their contracts came from Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica or Mercer. They wouldn’t ex­ist with­out them. Dur­ing the whole time the ref­er­en­dum was go­ing on, they were work­ing ev­ery day on the [Ted] Cruz cam­paign with Mercer and Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. Ag­gre­gateIQ built and ran Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica’s data­base plat­forms.”

Cum­mings won’t say who did his mod­el­ling. But in­voices lodged with the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion show pay­ments to a com­pany called Ad­vanced Skills In­sti­tute. It takes me weeks to spot the sig­nif­i­cance of this be­cause the com­pany is usu­ally re­ferred to as ASI Data Sci­ence, a com­pany that has a re­volv­ing cast of data sci­en­tists who have gone on to work with Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica and vice versa. There are videos of ASI data sci­en­tists pre­sent­ing Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica per­son­al­ity mod­els and pages for events the two com­pa­nies have jointly hosted. ASI told the Ob­server it had no for­mal re­la­tion­ship with Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica.

Here’s the cru­cial fact: dur­ing the US pri­mary elec­tions, Ag­gre­gate IQ signed away its in­tel­lec­tual property. It didn’t own its in­tel­lec­tual property: Mercer did. For Ag­gre­gateIQ to work with another cam­paign in Bri­tain, the firm would have to have had the ex­press per­mis­sion of Mercer. Asked if it would make any com­ment on fi­nan­cial or busi­ness links be­tween “Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, Robert Mercer, Steve Ban­non, Ag­gre­gateIQ, Leave.EU and Vote Leave”, a spokesper­son for Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica said: “Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica did no paid or un­paid work for Leave.EU.”

This story isn’t about Cum­mings find­ing a few loop­holes in the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion’s rules. Find­ing a way to spend an ex­tra mil­lion pounds here. Or (as the Ob­server has also dis­cov­ered) un­der­declar­ing the costs of his physi­cists on the spend­ing re­turns by £43,000. This story is not even about what ap­pears to be covert co­or­di­na­tion be­tween Vote Leave and Leave.EU in their use of Ag­gre­gateIQ and Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica. It’s about how a mo­ti­vated US bil­lion­aire – Mercer and his chief ide­o­logue, Ban­non – helped to bring about the big­gest con­sti­tu­tional change to Bri­tain in a cen­tury.

Be­cause to un­der­stand where and how Brexit is con­nected to Trump, it’s right here. These re­la­tion­ships, which thread through the mid­dle of Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, are the re­sult of a transat­lantic part­ner­ship that stretches back years. Farage and Ban­non have been close as­so­ciates since at least 2012. Ban­non opened the Lon­don arm of his news web­site Bre­it­bart in 2014 to sup­port Ukip – the lat­est front “in our cur­rent cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal war”, he told the New York Times.

Bri­tain had al­ways been key to Ban­non’s plans, another ex-Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica em­ployee told me on con­di­tion of anonymity. It was a cru­cial part of his strat­egy for chang­ing the en­tire world or­der.

“He be­lieves that to change politics, you have to first change the cul­ture. And Bri­tain was key to that. He thought that where Bri­tain led, Amer­ica would fol­low. The idea of Brexit was hugely sym­bol­i­cally im­por­tant to him.”

On 29 March, the day the UK gov­ern­ment trig­gered the start of the for­mal process of leav­ing the EU, I called one of the smaller cam­paigns, Vet­er­ans for Bri­tain. Cum­mings’s strat­egy was to tar­get peo­ple in the last days of the cam­paign and Vote Leave gave the smaller group £100,000 in the last week. A small num­ber of peo­ple they iden­ti­fied as “per­suad­able” were bom­barded with more than a bil­lion ads, the vast ma­jor­ity in the last few days. I asked David Banks, Vet­er­ans for Bri­tain’s head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, why they spent the money with Ag­gre­gateIQ.

“I didn’t find Agge­grateIQ. They found us. They rang us up and pitched us. There’s no con­spir­acy here. They were this Cana­dian com­pany, which was open­ing an of­fice in Lon­don to work in Bri­tish politics, and they were do­ing stuff that none of the UK com­pa­nies could of­fer. Their tar­get­ing was based on a set of tech­nolo­gies that hadn’t reached the UK yet. A lot of it was pro­pri­etary, they’d found a way of tar­get­ing peo­ple based on be­havioural in­sights. They ap­proached us.”

It seems clear to me that Banks didn’t know there might have been any­thing un­to­ward about this. He’s a pa­tri­otic man who be­lieves in Bri­tish sovereignt­y and Bri­tish val­ues and Bri­tish laws. I don’t think he knew about any over­lap with these other cam­paigns. I can only think that he was played.

And that the Bri­tish peo­ple were also played. In his blog, Cum­mings writes that Brexit came down to “about 600,000 peo­ple – just over 1% of reg­is­tered vot­ers”. It’s not a stretch to be­lieve that a mem­ber of the global 1% found a way to in­flu­ence this cru­cial 1% of Bri­tish vot­ers. The ref­er­en­dum was an open goal too tempt­ing a tar­get for US bil­lion­aires not to take a clear shot at. Or I should say US bil­lion­aires and other in­ter­ested par­ties, be­cause in ac­knowl­edg­ing the transat­lantic links that bind Bri­tain and Amer­ica, Brexit and Trump, so tightly, we also must ac­knowl­edge that Rus­sia is wrapped somewhere in this tight em­brace too.

I’ve been writ­ing about the links be­tween the Bri­tish right, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Euro­pean right. And these links lead to Rus­sia from mul­ti­ple di­rec­tions. Be­tween Farage and Trump and Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica.

A map seen by the Ob­server show­ing the many places where SCL and Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica have worked in­cludes Rus­sia, Lithua­nia, Latvia, Ukraine, Iran and Moldova. Mul­ti­ple Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica sources have re­vealed other links to Rus­sia, in­clud­ing trips to the coun­try, meet­ings with ex­ec­u­tives from Rus­sian state-owned com­pa­nies, and ref­er­ences by SCL em­ploy­ees to work­ing for Rus­sian en­ti­ties.

Ar­ti­cle 50 has been trig­gered. Ag­gre­gateIQ is out­side Bri­tish ju­ris­dic­tion. The Elec­toral Com­mis­sion is pow­er­less. And another UK elec­tion, with these same rules, is just weeks away. It is not that the author­i­ties don’t know there is cause for con­cern. The Ob­server has learned that the Bri­tish Crown Pros­e­cu­tion Ser­vice (CPS) did ap­point a spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor to as­sess if there was a case for a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether cam­paign fi­nance laws were bro­ken. The CPS re­ferred it back to the elec­toral com­mis­sion. Some­one close to the in­tel­li­gence se­lect com­mit­tee tells me that “work is be­ing done” on po­ten­tial Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the ref­er­en­dum.

Gavin Mil­lar, a QC and ex­pert in elec­toral law, de­scribed the sit­u­a­tion as “highly dis­turb­ing”. He be­lieves the only way to find the truth would be to hold a pub­lic in­quiry. But a gov­ern­ment would need to call it. A gov­ern­ment that has just trig­gered an elec­tion specif­i­cally to shore up its power base. An elec­tion de­signed to set us into per­ma­nent align­ment with Trump’s Amer­ica.

Martin Moore of King’s Col­lege, Lon­don, pointed out that elec­tions were a newly fash­ion­able tool for would-be au­thor­i­tar­ian states. “Look at Er­doğan in Turkey. What Theresa May is do­ing is quite an­tidemo­cratic in a way. It’s about en­hanc­ing her power very de­lib­er­ately. It’s not about a bat­tle of pol­icy be­tween two par­ties.”

This is Bri­tain in 2017. A Bri­tain that in­creas­ingly looks like a “man­aged” democ­racy. Paid for by a US bil­lion­aire. Us­ing mil­i­tary-style tech­nol­ogy. De­liv­ered by Facebook. And en­abled by us. If we let this ref­er­en­dum re­sult stand, we are giv­ing it our im­plicit con­sent. This isn’t about Re­main or Leave. It goes far be­yond party politics. It’s about the first step into a brave, new, in­creas­ingly un­demo­cratic world.

True be­liev­ers in the power of big data … Robert Mercer, left, Nigel Farage and Don­ald Trump Rex, EPA

A cam­paigner at a pro-Brexit rally in Lon­don

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