Thursday 2 July, 2020

T&T data mining project allegedly connected to Brexit, Donald Trump

A Guardian exposé has pinpointed Trinidad and Tobago as the site of a data mining test project which may have had a role in critical global political developments such as Brexit and US President Donald Trump's rise to power. 

The report, compiled by journalist Carole Cadwalladr, refers to a data analytics firm called SCL Elections which allegedly performed a ‘micro-targeting programme’ which gathered data in Trinidad and Tobago in 2013.

The company, which was bought by billionaire Robert Mercer and renamed Cambridge Analytica in 2014, is said to have played a role in political campaigns which led to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (Brexit) and the political campaign which led to Trump's victory at the polls. 

Cambridge Analytica has carried out major digital targeting projects for Trump's presidential campaign, Ted Cruz’s nomination campaign and multiple other US Republican campaigns, mostly funded by Robert Mercer. The company also assisted Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign during the British referendum on Brexit.

“A project that Cambridge Analytica carried out in Trinidad in 2013 brings all the elements in this story together. Just as Robert 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.”

A former employee of Cambridge Analytica said the programme was done through Trinidad and Tobago’s National Security Ministry.

“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 bulls**t 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 the source.

The report says this project proved to be a model which set the stage for subsequent political campaigns within the UK and the US.

“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.”


Griffith: No knowledge of project

Former national security minister Gary Griffith said that at no time during his tenure as minister did he hear of or participate in such a project.

“Nothing like this ever came across the National Security Council when I was the minister of national security, absolutely not. I had no knowledge of this whatsoever.”

“Anything to do with the National Security Council would have had to come through me for vetting and approval, and at no time during my tenure did this matter arise.”

Griffith went further to say that if the claims of data gathering made by the article are true, it would be illegal.

“Based on those allegations, and if that project was in fact done, someone should go to jail.”

“In 2011 when the Interception of Communication Act was approved in Parliament it prohibited anybody from intercepting the conversation of any citizen unless they acquire a warrant, which could only be requested by the Chief of Defense staff, the Commissioner of Police, or the director of the SSA.”

“No external organisation, no government official, no political party has any authorisation to intercept phone conversations. If that comment (on data gathering) is true, someone would have broken the law.”

Griffith added that cooperation would have had to been obtained from telecommunications companies in order to carry out such a project.

Former national security minister Jack Warner also said to LoopTT that he was unfamiliar with the company Cambridge Analytica.

Section 6 of the Interception of Communications Act says a person who “intentionally intercepts a communication in the course of its transmission by means of a telecommunications network commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a fine of five hundred thousand dollars and to imprisonment for seven years.”

“(2) Notwithstanding any other law, a person does not commit an offence under this section if—

(a) the communication is intercepted in obedience to a warrant issued by a Judge under section 8 or 11;

(b) the communication is intercepted by an authorised officer—

(i) in the interest of national security;

(ii) for the prevention or detection of an offence for which the penalty on conviction is imprisonment for ten years or more, and includes an offence where death, imprisonment for the remainder of a person’s natural life or life imprisonment is the penalty fixed by law;

(iii) for the purpose of safeguarding the economic well-being of the State; or

(iv) for the purpose of giving effect to the provisions of any international mutual assistance agreement, and any communication so intercepted may be used for the purpose of an application under section 8 or 11, but shall not be admissible as evidence in any criminal proceedings;

(c) he has reasonable grounds for believing that the person to whom or by whom the communication is transmitted consents to the interception;

(d) the communication is intercepted as an ordinary incident in the course of employment in the provision of telecommunications services;

(e) the communication is not a private communication;

(f) the communication is a stored communication and is acquired in accordance with any other law; or

(g) the interception is of a communication transmitted by a private telecommunications network and is done by a person who has— (i) a right to control the operation or use of the network; or (ii) the express or implied consent of a person referred to in subparagraph (i).”

LoopTT has reached out to former prime minister and Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar for comment. 

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