Cambridge Analytica’s ex-director wants to fix data privacy. Can we trust her?

brittany kaiser cambridge analytica iovo britain politics eu referendum
Brittany Kaiser, Executive Adviser to IOVO and former Director of Program Development at Cambridge Analytica. Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Data is valuable. In fact, some economists say data is the most valuable commodity in the world, even surpassing oil. That fact was quoted by ex-director at Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser, who spoke on April 18, 2018, at a press conference in New York for a new initiative on data privacy. The organization she’s advising is called IOVO, the Internet of Value Omniledger, and it goes against nearly everything she worked for at Cambridge Analytica.

Despite Kaiser’s questionable reputation, the new platform she’s championing offers an eye-catching vision of a future where advertisers pay you to view ads, not the other way around. Yet important questions remain. Is Kaiser someone to be trusted? And is this really the internet we want?

Who does data belong to?

Kaiser was clear about her opinions on privacy and data today. She spent most of her opening remarks at the IOVO press conference talking about the monetary value data holds.

“Our data has been harvested, collected, modeled, and monetized — just for advertisers
to be able to target us.”

“The biggest companies in the world right now are made up of trillions of dollars of digital assets that really, in my opinion, should belong to us as individuals,” said Kaiser. “Our data has been harvested, collected, modeled, and monetized — sometimes sold on as raw data, and sometimes licensed just for advertisers to be able to target us.”

As she pointed out, data-powered ads aren’t just minor annoyances on the internet — they’ve been built into the very fabric of how it works. Ad have provided free and open access to just about every website imaginable, completely de-commodifying resources like information and communication. On top of that, tech giants like Google and Facebook have become some of the most profitable businesses in the world, all on the backbone of its massive ad platforms.

The now-controversial advisor to IOVO said she’s more interested in fixing these companies than replacing them: “I’m not a supporter of the #DeleteFacebook campaign. I think that Google, Facebook and Amazon can reform.”

brittany kaiser cambridge analytica iovo feature stolen data

Kaiser wasn’t speaking about government regulation. She’s talking about the Internet Value Omniledger, or IOVO. It puts the monetary value of an individual’s data back in their hands. In its whitepaper, the founders of the platform describe it as a “decentralized network-database” that uses blockchain concepts to give people direct control of their own personal data — and even monetize it. In more familiar terms, IOVO is a platform. Developers can create apps on top of it (or transition older apps to it).

The debut app for IOVO is Influnomy, which “allows users to discount their payments by posting the social media content desired” by a brand or place.” Kaiser compared it to AirBnB, which helped people use the property they already owned as a means of income.

The debut app for IOVO is Influnomy, which “allows users to discount their payments by posting the social media content desired” by a brand or place.”

“What if, instead of an entire department of data engineers and data scientists trying to hygiene data about customers, customers were incentivized to update those data files themselves?” said Kaiser. “What if in a permission-based structure, you could decide if you wanted to provide value to advertisers or to political groups? Or, for instance, share your medical data for cancer research? All those options should be available for an individual to make. That’s really where I think this industry should be moving.”

Kaiser and the other representatives didn’t speak much about the details of IOVO. They were far more interested in the conceptual framework. Most of the staff is based out of Poland, and until now, has been under wraps. Yet when you consider the voices and identities of who is delivering these ideas, you might become more dubious about their claims.

The web of irony and contradiction

IOVO isn’t shy about the past employment history of its high-profile advisor. According to its website, IOVO started in 2017, which lands right amid Cambridge Analytica’s most substantial controversies.

“There’s a very low amount of data literacy around people,” Kaiser said at the conference. That quote was intended to describe her new venture, but it just easily could have been used a soundbite to describe how her old employer took advantage of millions of Facebook users.

Kaiser was a player in several major political campaigns that abused Facebook’s fast-and-loose data policies — which she now criticizes. She presided as Director of Program Development at Cambridge Analytica for four years, working intimately with political clients. She was fired earlier this year from Cambridge Analytica over a “contract dispute” in March.

As MSNBC reports, Kaiser was closely involved in the Trump campaign, both speaking at CPAC alongside Kellyanne Conway, and celebrating the presidential victory with large campaign donors like Rebekah Mercer. All of that could technically be included in her role at Cambridge Analytica, but it’s hard not to see the complete contradiction in the ideas she espouses and her prior work. It’s the equivalent of an environmental activist who just happens to be employed at ExxonMobil.

It’s the equivalent of an environmental activist
who just happens to be employed at ExxonMobil.

In all the interviews she’s given over the last few months, at no point has Kaiser ever come out and apologized for what she participated in — or even admitted the contradiction in what she did. When asked about it at the press conference, she stood firm that was the right person to deliver this message.

“To be honest, for many years, I never questioned it,” Kaiser said. “That’s the way that the political system works. That’s the way that advertising works. That’s the way that every single industry that exists in the entire basis of digital communications — that’s the way it works. I do really understand the industry, and I have the ability to be a voice for change. I think a lot of other people that have been involved in this industry, are also coming out to support.”

In an earlier interview with The Guardian, Kaiser was asked why, as a Bernie Sanders supporter, she felt it wasn’t contradictory to work on behalf of the Trump campaign. “Just like when you’re trained as a lawyer,” Kaiser answered. “If you’re trained as a proper political consultant, you should be able to undertake your profession no matter who the client is.”

That justification might help her sleep better at night, but it casts a long shadow on anything she says or supports today.

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