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Moving Fast and Breaking Things III

Ela Gonca Izmirli, Washington Hatti US

 

When Donald Trump appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner as an unofficial campaign aide, Kushner turned to Silicon Valley for help. Working with his brother, New York venture capitalist Josh Kushner, they used tech startup techniques to build now president Trump’s campaign strategy, according to a profile by Steven Bertoni of Forbes. They also adopted the lean start-up formula encapsulated in Facebook’s early motto: “Move Fast and Break Things.”

After Trump had won the GOP nomination, Kushner started an ambitious digital operation fashioned around a database they named Project Alamo. Kushner was eager to grow fast (and break things). According to Bloomberg: “There’s not that much of a difference between politics and regular marketing,” said a senior Trump campaign official during the presidential campaign. Kushner, according to this official, reached out to some Silicon Valley people to learn about digital fundraising and “ramp this thing up to the next level.” Soon after, Steve Bannon joined the Trump campaign and the data operation began to take shape.

Now serving as the chief strategist to President Trump, Steve Bannon worked as the executive chair of Breitbart News – the far-right, and nationalistic news website. Even though Breitbart claims in its name to be a news site, it is more of an opinion and commentary website. Breitbart’s former editor has described the comment section of the site as a “cesspool for white supremacists,” a populist, conspiracy-tinged venue for frustrated right-wing Americans disillusioned with mainstream politicians.

The owner of Cambridge Analytica, Robert Mercer reportedly invested $10 million in the media outlet when it was struggling in 2011, according to Bloomberg News. Mercer and his daughter Rebekah also helped finance the Government Accountability Institute, an investigative think tank that Bannon co-founded. Two men partnered up to start a film production company, Glittering Steel, which produced the infamous documentary “Clinton Cash,” that portrays Hillary Clinton as a power hungry corrupt politician.

The alliance continued with the data mining company, Cambridge Analytica. According to the documents Bannon submitted to the Office of Government Ethics, Bannon’s stake in Cambridge Analytica is worth between $1-5 million. When White House released chief strategist Steve Bannon’s financial disclosure forms in late March, it showed that the former Breitbart News chief worked as the vice president of Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica initially supported Ted Cruz in the 2016 Presidential Campaign. In a very competitive Republican primary field, the Cruz campaign spent $3m for Cambridge Analytica’s services. After Cruz won the Iowa caucus, Cambridge Analytica was credited with identifying potential voters. It was reported that the Cruz campaign spent $5.8 million on work by Cambridge Analytica before firing the company.

After Cruz dropped out of the primary race for the Republican presidential nomination, Robert and Rebekah Mercer started supporting Trump. Around the same time Steve Bannon joined the Trump campaign as a manager, and soon enough Cambridge Analytica began working for Trump’s presidential campaign.

Working with Cambridge Analytica, Kushner oversaw the building of Trump’s database of shopping, eating, credit, thinking habits and personalities of 220 million American citizens. Trump’s campaign, right around the same time period, started working with Parscale who worked under Kushner as well. Parscale’s firm, Giles-Parscale, was paid $91 million by the Trump campaign for internet adds. According to CNN, the Kushner led data operation team “helped the Trump campaign figure out where the candidate’s message was resonating.” Both companies, Giles-Parscale and Cambridge Analytica, are included in the FBI’s wide-ranging criminal investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Kushner, the head of the technology team for the Trump Campaign was appointed to lead the Administrations “Office of Technology and Innovation” among his many other jobs after Trump’s inauguration. It was reported that he told he plans to run the government like a “business” and treat American citizens like “customers.” The word “customer” here is the key to understanding Trump Administration’s perspective on governing.

Right after the election, Cambridge Analytica rented an office very close to the White House in Washington. According to The Independent, the data mining company was hoping to win contracts to boost both White House policy messaging and to expand sales for the Trump Organization. The idea was that Donald Trump could tailor the US policy agenda to cater to his base with the help of data analytics. Washington Post reported that the company pitched officials different ways its technology could be used to “deter terrorism, bolster the military’s capacities as it prepares for a possible buildup and help assess attitudes about immigrants.”

The Washington Post wrote that the now ousted National Security Adviser to President Trump, Michael Flynn too served as an advisor to SCL – Cambridge Analytica’s parent company -. Rebekah Mercer who was serving on the transition team for President Trump advocated for Michael Flynn for the National Security Adviser position, Trump appointed him despite President Obama’s warnings.  Post also reported that Michael Flynn, while serving as the National Security Adviser helped SCL secure government contracts with the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), – formerly known as the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC).

CSCC was established to focus on countering the actions and ideology of al-Qaida, it’s affiliates and adherents, mainly acting like the state departments social media and meme squad. While the unit was renamed to GEC it turned its focus to building international partnerships; acquiring and using data analytics; and developing procuring and distributing psyop content. SCL has divisions that specialize in each of these areas.

SCL Group is known to have won at least one contract with the Global Engagement Center after Trump’s inauguration to work on young men who may be thinking of joining ISIS in other countries. A spreadsheet leaked to BuzzFeed News listed more than a dozen projects SCL pitched to the government, covering a broad area of work such as “opinion research” and “audience analysis.”

It is still unknown whether or not SCL secured any more government contracts. But President Trump made their data collection job a lot easier by signing a bill to repeal internet privacy rules signed into law by President Obama. The repealed bill required the providers to notify customers about the types of information they collect and share.

While the White House is carefully avoiding talking about the Russian involvement in the US elections using technology, Jared Kushner made an opening speech for the “Technology Week” recently. During his speech, he said many government electronic systems were overdue for an update. He promised to “consolidate” the 6100 government data centers and to migrate them to the cloud. Kushner, like his father in law, did not offer any specifics about this process or about how to keep the “cloud” secure. He did not mention how the contractors will be chosen or how the safety of the data will be provided either.

If that was not enough to worry the privacy advocates, another widely reported piece of news came out this week; the “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” sent letters to the 50 secretaries of state across the country requesting personal information about voters. The commission was formed by Donald Trump to investigate his own claim that millions of “illegals” voted in the 2016 presidential election costing him the popular vote. The letter that the commission sent, signed by the vice chairman Kris Kobach (R), asked for the names, birth dates, addresses, and party affiliations of registered voters in every state. Commission also asked for felony convictions, military statuses, the last four digits of Social Security numbers and voting records dating back to 2006. The Nation Magazine called this request an “unprecedented attack on voting rights.” The Hill reported a Mississippi official saying: “Fraud commission can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.” Many states immediately announced that they would not obey the order.

Donald Trump next day lashed out at the states that have objected to the presidential commission’s request to hand over voter data on Twitter, accusing them of skirting public scrutiny over potential voter fraud.

White House is indeed moving fast and breaking things, some of them irreplaceable.

 

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