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How Netflix’s ‘The Great Hack’ Misses the Point

It portrays Cambridge Analytica as taking advantage of lax controls at Facebook. But that was the least of the company’s problematic behavior.
July 22, 2019
How Netflix’s ‘The Great Hack’ Misses the Point
Brittany Kaiser. (Photo by LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

For a moment, it looked as though capitalism was doing precisely what it is supposed to do, policing itself through the market. Almost exactly a year ago, Facebook’s market capitalization lost $119 billion in a single day when it revealed that 3 million Europeans had closed their accounts and that growth projections had slowed in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. 

The scandal erupted when British journalist Carole Cadwalladr orchestrated revelations by Cambridge Analytice whistleblower data scientist Christopher Wylie to the New York Times and Guardian, together with a sting operation by the U.K.’s Channel 4 News. Wylie admitted to working with a Cambridge University professor, Alexsandr Kogan, on for-profit use of data from FB profiles that was collected under the premise that it was for academic research. There has been much back-and-forth about when —and if—Cambridge Analytica deleted the data. 

As a result, the EU introduced new data protection laws. And six U.K. companies in the Cambridge Analytica group had to declare bankruptcy.

It’s important to realize, though, that Facebook showed no interest in cleaning house for a long time.TheCambridge Analytica scandal made headlines in March 2018, but the basic elements were reported in December 2015 in the Guardian. Harry Davies exposed that CA’s work for candidate Ted Cruz used Facebook data harvested without users’ consent. Facebook refused to comment on Davies’ and others’ reporting. 

Up until Trump’s election, there was also an unfortunate tendency for the media to see data harvesting as benign as long as left of center campaigns were the ones doing it. As this breathless 2012 Guardian article details, the Obama re-election campaign used Facebook to reach supporters in ways that would now make many of us queasy. “The re-election team, Obama for America, will be inviting its supporters to log on to the campaign website via Facebook, thus allowing the campaign to access their personal data and add it to the central data store.”

And these days, Facebook’s market price is close to its pre-scandal levels, even as the Federal Trade Commission has voted to fine the company a record $5 billion for misuse of data  harvested from 87 million users in violation of its own rules. And while Cambridge Analytica, its parent company, SCL Elections, and four other affiliates filed for bankruptcy, spinoff SCL companies were started in 2017-8 in the U.K. When will we find out what they are up to? When something else dreadful occurs?

The coming Netflix documentary The Great Hack is a missed opportunity to remind viewers of what happened when Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica to collect data from users. The film, unfortunately, is not only dizzy and poorly edited, but gives way too much screen time to an impressionistic sketch of a not-very interesting former executive. Distracted viewers may remember the endless shots of Brittany Kaiser in cars, planes, and luxury hotels, and not notice the wrongdoing underlying it all.  

But that wrongdoing wasn’t a bug in the way Cambridge Analytica operated, it was a feature. You could say the filmmakers give Kaiser, now 31, enough rope to hang herself, but that would have required them to question her version of the facts. Kaiser tries to portray herself as a human rights activist, but her work history before CA, the Nigerian election work she initiated for CA, and her current reinvention as a crytocurrency hustler with links to organized crime make that vanishingly improbable.

True, the film also follows an American professor of media studies at the New School, David Carroll, who sued Cambridge Analytica and  SCL Elections, in the U.K. under U.K. data protection laws, requesting all the data they had collected on him. But the bankruptcy of the UK companies led the UK court to decide against Carroll. On a happier note, The Great Hack also features the successful efforts of Carole Cadwalladr, whose Observer articles about Wylie’s revelations led directly to the collapse of SCL Group and to parliamentary hearings. (Full disclosure: I met Carroll and Cadwalladr in the course of tweeting about SCL, and collaborated on an article with Cadwalladr.) 

The most disappointing aftermath of the CA scandal, though, is not Facebook’s impunity or Carroll’s defeat. It’s the way it’s been stovepiped as a case of a bad actor that took advantage of lax controls at Facebook.  In fact, the data misuse was the least of the company’s problematic behavior. 

Since August 2016, I’ve written or co-written five pieces exposing different aspects of Cambridge Analytica, from its former significant ownership by controversial U.K. property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz to its involvement in the “investor passports” business to its organizing hacking in Nigeria to its links with the Trump inner circle (Steve Bannon, Erik Prince, the Mercers). 

My theory is that SCL/CA was a one-stop-shop that handled hacking elections, bribing foreign officials, getting them second or third passports, laundering their money, and dabbling in cryptocurrency. In fact SCL was apparently planning its own cryptocurrency just before the end came. 

What was the real end game? It’s hard to say. But it’s interesting that SCL Group, which was incorporated in 2005 in the U.K., had seemingly little interest in making money in the data business. The company managed to lose 99 percent of its shareholders’ equity in its first seven years: “Shareholders’ equity plummeted from: £681,000 in 2006 to a modest £273,000 in 2012 to £4,424 in 2013 and £87,420 in 2014,” as I wrote for Tablet in 2016. ( Equity recovered to $244,194 in 2015, the last year the company filed accounts. )

These accounts were unaudited; the firm’s auditor, PKF, resigned in May 2013, apparently so that the firm could be domiciled at its address. It remained listed as accountant. But no other firm stepped in as replacement auditor.

The biggest SCL Group shareholder between 2005 and June 2015 was Vincent Tchenguiz, an innovative real estate investor with a penchant for conspicuous consumerism. As the Telegraph put it, “Tchenguiz’s motivator is money.” 

So why did he stay invested so long in an unprofitable company? Tchenguiz only divested his shares when SCL was about to start work for Ted Cruz. His director, Julian Wheatland, remained a director until the company’s end, and even acquired a small shareholding.

Meanwhile, the key figures at SCL/CA are still riding high, trying to monetize their infamy where they previously tried to monetize our data.

Which brings us to Brittany Kaiser, the former executive turned “whistle-blower.” 

When she’s not promoting cryptocurrency, Kaiser is writing a memoir of her “whistleblowing” for a “very high six figures” advance. Meanwhile the real CA whistleblower, Christopher Wylie (the pink-haired young man you may have seen on TV) appears in The Great Hack calling the company “a full-service propaganda machine”, and says Kaiser is no whistleblower.

Unlike Wylie, who left SCL in July 2014, Kaiser stuck with the company long past its sell-by date, leaving in winter 2018 due to a pay dispute, not revulsion at its dishonesty and lack of moral compass.  Another problem is Kaiser’s own dishonesty and lack of moral compass.  

According to the film and to Kaiser’s publisher, HarperCollins, prior to joining SCL she was “spending most of her career working for progressive political campaigns and human rights organizations.” 

But there may even be more than meets the eye to one of Kaiser’s few certified liberal activities. Kaiser says she worked on Obama’s digital campaign alongside fellow Andover alum Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, in the summer of 2007.

Congress questioned Mark Zuckerberg in 2018 about Obama for America’s 2012 campaign which (depending on users’ privacy settings) allowed the same scraping of friends’ data without their permission that Cambridge Analytica’s did. 

And contrary to Kaiser’s claims, her work before Cambridge Analystica involved rubbing shoulders with corrupt leaders and power-brokers in Libya, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia and other countries not exactly known for championing human rights.

It was at a buzzy downtown Manhattan loft party in mid-November 2015. An acquaintance sang out to me as I walked in, ”You have to meet Brittany, you both worked in Libya!” 

Brittany Kaiser was smiley and agreeable and young and disarmingly short; she said she’d been a human rights activist in Libya, where I’d worked as a journalist in 2011-12.

It was Kaiser’s bad luck that one of my companions at the party was Libyan, a former private banker with a huge stock of acquaintances. So we hit Kaiser with questions about what she did and for whom. 

My Libyan friend had attended a May 2013 foreign direct investment conference in London that Kaiser herself had helped organize, and my friend lost no time in excoriating the then-prime minister whom Kaiser had worked with on the conference, Ali Zeidan, as “a big thief.” (He fled Libya in March 2014 after presiding over its looting and political collapse, and when he tried to return in August 2017 he was promptly kidnapped and lucky to escape the country with his life.) 

My Libyan friend had heard enough and walked away in search of food.  I continued peppering Kaiser with questions. I challenged her, asking why a “human rights” activist had worked with thieves like Zeidan. I was offensive. But Brittany wasn’t offended; she muttered something about having been very young then. She wasn’t very articulate, but she never lost her cool. She said she worked for a political consulting firm now. She even gave me her business card before we parted. 

I found Kaiser’s activities so suspect that though it was late when I got home from the party I sat down at my laptop and went straight to the Companies House website to look up SCL Group Ltd, Kaiser’s employer. I also found the firm she’d worked for on the FDI conference, PACE Group. There was an advance promotional slide deck online. 

In the next days, I pieced together part of the story. Kaiser incorporated Pan African Conference and Exhibition  (PACE) in January 2013 with a woman from Sudan, Asgad Hagaz, who owned 999 of the company’s 1,000 shares, with Kaiser owning one. Hagaz and her husband Tariq Mohammed were known in the London Libyan community as Gaddafi supporters. PACE also worked with the embassy of Ethiopia in London in May 2014 on investment opportunities. Yet PACE doesn’t seem to have ever had a website. 

According to the slide deck online, the “platinum sponsor” of the May 2013 conference that Kaiser organized was ODAC, a Libyan state contracting board helmed from 1989 to 2011 by Ali Ibrahim Dabaiba, a corrupt official said to have stolen more than $2 billion from the Libyan state. Another Libyan friend in London who attended the PACE FDI event thought the real purpose of the conference was to reinstate these corrupt contracts with the new ODAC management. (Coincidentally, when I met Kaiser I was researching the assets stolen by Ali Dabaiba. So it was Kaiser’s double bad luck to run into someone who knew what ODAC was.)

PACE never filed a return or accounts; it was dissolved by compulsory strikeoff in September 2014, presumably for non-filing. 

In August 2013, according to her LinkedIn, Kaiser  joined a related, equally shadowy group, Pathfinder Trade. Kaiser’s bio for Pathfinder lists work in such beacons of human rights as “Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Burma (sic), Azerbaijan, Mongolia and Iran.” (Oh, and China.) Pathfinder itself lists a seeming charity, World for Libya, as a “strategic partner” on its website. But World for Libya was also set up as a vehicle for political influence by associates of the kleptocrat Dabaiba family, as noted in a Wall Street Journal expose. 

It may or may not prove to be relevant to the Kaiser-SCL saga that as I published in January 2017,

Tchenguiz did a £20 million trade-offset deal with Gadhafi in 2008, and was formerly half-owner of a London estate agency, now called Chestertons, which sold the office tower at 14 Cornhill to the Libyan Investment Authority in 2008. 

Tchenguiz’ partner in Chestertons, Salah Mussa, a British Libyan, was the founder of World For Libya. So it could be that Kaiser came to the attention of the Mussa-Tchenguiz-Wheatland team in her PACE/Pathfinder days.

As this background suggests, Kaiser did not unwittingly slide down a slippery slope into involvement with nasty causes and people. She jumped down willingly. 

But The Great Hack doesn’t begin to suggest how far over to the dark side Kaiser and her associates went during their tenures at  SCL. 

Kaiser initiated SCL’s work on the Nigerian presidential election of 2015, in an  email she sent my source on December 19, 2014. My source on Kaiser’s Nigerian involvement was a former associate of Nigerian billionaire Benedict Peters. My source was furious at what he viewed as SCL’s incompetence, which is why he was willing to talk; later he also had a falling-out with Peters.  

Peters was  close to the incumbent Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, and former oil minister Diezani Alison-Madueke, who was first arrested for massive corruption on October 10, 2015, in London, some months after the SCL work in Nigeria described here. 

The elections were slated to take place in February 2015—far too soon after Kaiser’s pitch  to mount a proper digital campaign. (The election actually took place 28-29 March 2015 due to security issues.) My conclusion is that SCL had no intention of organizing a campaign based on its much-trumpeted personality profiling. They had cruder methods in mind, requiring a lot less time and effort.

The agreement was that Peters would pay SCL Group almost $2 million to work to re-elect Goodluck Jonathan; in addition, one of Kaiser’s friends, Chase Ergen, would obtain diplomatic passports from the Caribbean island of Dominica for Peters, Alison-Madueke, and one other Nigerian businessman. Such passports offer visa-free travel to 135 countries, including  the Schengen area while Nigerian passports only offer visa free travel to 45 countries, mainly in Africa. In addition, people who fear indictment and confiscation of their primary passport may attempt to acquire others. (Ergen, a son of DISH chairman Charlie Ergen, is close to Dominica’s longtime PM, Roosevelt Skerritt.) 

Most of the $2 million from the Peters group was wired to SCL’s London bank, but a few hundred thousand—my source couldn’t recall the exact figure—was sent to the Swiss bank account of what he called “ Israeli hackers with a Kiev company”. The Israelis did the real work: hacking Goodluck Jonathan’s opponent Mohamed Buhari. (Some of my source’s charges, including illegal hacking of Buhari’s financial and medical records, but not the passport deal, were verified by other sources in this article by Carole Cadwalladr.) 

Despite SCL’s efforts, Goodluck Jonathan lost to Buhari in 2015. In March 2019, Buhari won a second term. Since then, Diezani Alison-Madueke has been arrested on money-laundering charges in both Nigeria and the U.K.; she had to return $153 million in state funds to Nigeria.

Speaking of the dark side, to the extent that anyone’s taken the fall for SCL it’s been Kaiser’s boss, the nervous, arrogant SCL Group CEO Alexander Nix. He refused to be interviewed for The Great Hack” but is nonetheless shown often on-screen, most memorably presuming to lecture MP Damian Collins, the head of the parliamentary inquiry into fake news before which he testified. 

Nix also appears in famous clips from a Channel 4 (U.K.) sting video released March 19 2018 – the same day that the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office or ICO requested a warrant to search SCL’s offices. In the video, Nix tells a man he believes to be a potential foreign client, actually a reporter in disguise, about the SCL’s use of honeypots. He’s accompanied by the much older Mark Turnbull, a Bell Pottinger veteran then at SCL. (From 2004 until 2012 Turnbull ran Bell Pottinger’s Specialist Unit in Conflict Transformation. Bell Pottinger is better known in the U.K. than in the U.S. It  collapsed in September 2017 amid allegations of inflaming racial tensions in work for South African clients, after a long history of work for dictators and rogues.) 

Nix was supposed to appear on a panel at the annual Cannes Lions advertising convention this June but had to step down due to the outcry among attendees, including one past award winner who cut up his Lion prize in protest. 

Nix’s last business venture, however, still exists, albeit without him. Nix and the CA gang started a new company, Emerdata Ltd., in the U.K. August 11, 2017, a week before the Delaware Cambridge Analytica LLC director Steve Bannon left the White House. Six of its 10 directors have resigned due to the Facebook scandal –  Nix resigned March 28, 2018 shortly after resigning from SCL itself—but not Emerdata’s most notorious directors, Rebekah and Jennifer Mercer. 

People like Nix and Kaiser don’t give up easily. They just keep plugging away, starting new companies with new hustles. And so just a few months after the collapse of CA, on June 7, 2018, a former director of Emerdata, Ahmad al-Khatib, 29, started Auspex International Ltd with Mark Turnbull, Nix’s co-star in the Channel 4 sting video. 

Al-Khatib is one of the sons of Ashraf Hosny al-Khatib, an executive in the UAE crown prince’s court. The court is headed by a brother of the de facto ruler of the UAE, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

According to the unintentionally humorous press release, “It was Turnbull’s integrity, along with his strong track record in strategic consultancy and campaigning, that persuaded Al-Khatib to appoint him.” (Turnbull’s old firm Bell Pottinger had worked for the Abu Dhabi Airports Company and Emirates Airline.) 

The Great Hack treads lightly about what Kaiser has done since leaving SCL, which is, besides the arduous task of self-promotion, crypto-hustling. 

Kaiser’s LinkedIn lists her as co-founder of Bueno Capital, in the “Zurich area”, since September 2017.) What does Bueno do? The website listed on its LinkedIn page no longer works nor is there any information on who registered it. But one can consult a video from “CryptoHQ,” a side event at Davos 2018 Kaiser was involved with, to watch a lavishly fur-coated Kaiser explain “we work on building teams for blockchain projects and implementing them” and gush that it’s “the greatest time” to get involved with crypto: “The only alarm bell is there’s not enough developers to keep up with the boom.”

Bueno Capital's Brittany Kaiser on tomorrow's Google, Tesla and Amazon

Kaiser has also made the time to serve on the advisory board of a crypto junketing company in neighboring Macau, DragonCoin, which has drawn the wrong kind of attention for being associated with Broken Tooth, aka Wan Kuok-koi, a scary convicted felon from Macau’s organized crime triads. Broken Tooth, recently released from prison after serving a 14-year sentence, is banned from Hong Kong

If you don’t know much about what Kaiser did, her youth and carefully cultivated air of naivete may fool you.  Or, if you are involved in fooling others, you may accept her as a kindred spirit. Some elements in the crypto “space” accept Kaiser as a whistleblower on SCL—as she was billed at a recent Hong Kong gathering (video here). Just this month, an Austin company reminiscent of London’s wilder AIM market rides, Phunware, named Kaiser to its advisory board

Phunware, which describes itself as “a fully-integrated enterprise cloud platform for mobile,” commented that “Brittany has been at the epicenter of the global movement toward privacy, consumer protection and corporate accountability.” Phunware’s stock price has gone from over $300 in February to $2 today.

Ann Marlowe

Ann Marlowe is a writer and businesswoman in New York. She tweets at @annmarlowe.