In “Targeted,” Brittany Kaiser is an Unreliable Narrator

Still From “The Great Hack” (Netflix, 2019)

In the recent film “The Great Hack” (Netflix, 2019) and the just-released memoir “Targeted,” (Harper Collins, 2019) Cambridge Analytica protagonist Brittany Kaiser portrays herself as an incoherent hybrid of prodigy, ingenue, mastermind, and victim. One moment she is a hopeless idealist forced to turn to the Dark Side for money; the next she is a ruthless negotiator pitching shady politicians and angling to get her fair share.

Kaiser attends an elite US private school (Phillips Andover) and then goes on to earn a string of degrees including at least some of a PhD by the age of thirty. In the process, she manages to play a pivotal role in destabilizing democracies around the globe. She comes across, on one hand, as startlingly intelligent and savvy.

But despite her prescience and pedigree, it is her demeanor that raises continuous red flags. In “The Great Hack,” she comes across as “drunk,” and “on something” much of the time, and indeed in “Targeted” she admits that she had been drinking excessively, especially in 2017 and 2018, as a coping mechanism for processing all she had been involved in.

Perhaps most frustratingly, Kaiser misses the opportunity to come clean presented by her memoir, and instead prevaricates. Unlike Whittaker Chambers’ 1952 classic memoir “Witness,” wherein the author goes to extreme lengths to establish credibility and detail his secret life as a CPUSA spy, Kaiser’s book functions more like a haunted house theme park ride: we are shown the things she wants us to see in order to elicit a sympathetic response, but she bungles and hides matters that she would prefer not to explore.

The first and most glaring example is the character “Chester Freeman,” who is obviously the scion of the Dish Network family fortune, Chase Ergen. “Freeman” is introduced in the book’s second paragraph, and anyone who knows this story knows that it is Ergen. Her credibilty is immediately destroyed, and this singular act signals that the rest of the book is an exercise in impression-making rather than an effort to document history; however the reader might appreciate that they are given fair notice that her voice is not to be trusted.

(She makes no effort to alert readers to the fact that “Freeman” is a pseudonym; only on the book’s copyright page does she say that “some characters’ names have been changed to protect their privacy,” but she does not indicate that only Ergen’s name has been so altered, which seems to be the case. She is happy to out the full name of every last data scientist and staffer at CA, by contrast.)

Kaiser’s urge to protect Chase Ergen raises a string of interesting questions for anyone familiar with this story, for it was Ergen that introduced Kaiser to Alexander Nix, the chief villain of the Cambridge Analytica saga. First, she elides important details about how Nix knows Ergen in the first place. (Ergen was involved in a corrupt passport mill scheme in St. Kitts & Nevis, and Nix was seeking election business with that island nation’s prime minister — with whom Ergen was close. Kaiser details none of this.)

For all of Kaiser’s experience, she seems to be remarkably naïve about the world of organized crime and intelligence tradecraft. Specifically, one feels that she should have at some point become familiar with the concept of a “cutout.” (A cutout is someone who serves as an intermediary between two other parties.) Cutouts are useful in organized crime and in espionage, because if a cutout is captured, their knowledge of the larger network is deliberately and necessarily constrained. But Kaiser stakes her credibility on her obliviousness to such things.

Initially it would seem that Nix sized Kaiser up as such a cutout, and employed her to great effect in that role. However, there are indications that she may in fact know more than that position should afford: that she knew to try to protect Ergen, and didn’t explore any of his other dealings, or his relationship with Nix. Or that she refers to a proposal to Russia-linked Lukoil as the only possible vector for Russian involvement in the firm.

She vaguely references, but discredits without repeating it, a claim by journalist Ann Marlowe that SCL Elections’ largest shareholder until 2015 had been Victor Tchenguiz. (Tchenguiz is a UK real estate magnate who won £1M betting on a Trump win in 2016; he was also involved in the collapse of Icelandic bank, Kaupthing.) Marlowe also discovered that Tchenguiz is an associate of Ukrainian organized crime boss Dmitryo Firtash, who is in turn close to Russian mobsters Semion Mogilevich and Vladimir V. Putin. Kaiser explores none of this, as if she has always known which lane is hers, and she knows to stay in it.

Because she is a cutout, Kaiser tries to discredit journalists like Carole Cadwalladr and Marlowe simply because they discovered information that Kaiser didn’t know; in fact their only sin had been in trying to get to the truth of this impossibly complex story that did in fact touch on both Brexit and Trump. In the book’s “denouement,” when Kaiser decides to paint herself as having been “shocked” at various CA dealings that had been hidden from her, she does eventually begrudgingly admit that Cadwalladr’s stories were in fact accurate and that they posed a significant problem for her and Cambridge.

Sir Winston Churchill famously quipped,“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.” And indeed it is not until the book’s final act, when she is finally and unequivocally fired with a firm letter from the company’s HR department, that she adopts the mantle of “whistleblower.” Such courage, Brits. (Nix assigned her this nickname.)

Perhaps the most dismal section of the book is when Kaiser decides to use her wisdom of 30 years and light dabbling in the world of cryptocurrency to become ethically prescriptive. She, like many other delusional souls, is engaged in the fantasy that “blockchain” will usher in a new world of magic libertarian ethical money and data exchange.

Kaiser uses this backdrop to further engage in an even more dangerous delusion: that if individuals “own their data,” the corrosive effects of data misuse on democracies will magically be solved. This is, of course, nonsense. The first fallacy is that if everyone “owns their data” that they can then “decide” whether to sell it. In this calculus, perhaps everyone generates a “data dividend” of a few hundred dollars per year, and that if they choose to sell it, they can “monetize” that asset.

This solves nothing, for the issue is in the application and use of data — not in its monetization. If a sufficient number of people participate in such a monetization scheme, we are right back where we started. Not sharing your data doesn’t shield society as a whole from the bad effects of data aggregation and manipulation. Thus, “owning your data” is just a way to make it possible for your fellow citizens to sell out society as a whole.

If Kaiser wants to get on the right side of things, perhaps her best bet is to quit hanging out with her business partner Chase Ergen (whom she professes to “love,” via the character of Chester Freeman in the book’s epilogue) and his tech bro billionaire friends. She doesn’t mention that Ergen was arrested in May 2019 in St. Kitts along with Coca Cola (Hellenic) bottling heir Alki David, for possession of $1.3M in marijuana and ketamine.

Other details Kaiser leaves out include her sickly father’s relationship with Irena Valentinovna Grachova-Kaiser (either an aunt or a step-mother), who appears to be of Russian descent. She omits the fact that she and Chase Ergen are involved in a company called “Pig.gi” in Mexico that aimed to extract data from the poors in exchange for internet access, and which was working with CA and Fox’s PRI party in 2018 to throw the presidential election. And her blind admiration for Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning does nothing to convey any sense that she has absorbed the complexity of this situation, or indeed that those people may have been or are now assets of a malign foreign power.

If “The Great Hack” was an introduction to a curious character, “Targeted” is an attempt to launder that character’s reputation. She takes great pains to ensure that the reader is aware of how idealistic, liberal, and open-minded she is — and that it was only at the hands of Alexander Nix that she became corrupted and base. However it is trivial to crane one’s neck and see the artifice of this construction. At best, the book is the simplistic effort of a slippery operator to extricate herself from a horrible jam so she might go on to the next caper.

At worst, it is an attempt to cover-up a broader organized crime operation involving multiple layers of cutouts — from Putin to Mogilevich to Firtash to Tchenguiz to Manafort to Nix to Ergen to Mercers to Kaiser, and beyond. That neither we readers nor Kaiser may be able to easily tell the difference is testament to the efficacy of the use of shell companies to shield intention and attribution. In this world, one is never really sure with whom one may be dealing or where money is coming from.

Perhaps its traceability is one reason for Kaiser’s attraction to cryptocurrency. Instead of using blockchain to allow people to sell their data or not, we could use technology to determine whether money is dirty. But this raises the question: if she had known where the money had come from, would it have appeared any less green to her?

UPDATE (November 5, 2019): I dropped Ms. Kaiser a brief note to ask her if she had any comment on this piece. The exchange is reproduced here:

Her response, received November 5:

For the record, I chose to publish this piece myself for purposes of speed, and have received no compensation for any of my extensive work in fighting disinformation and the subversion of democracy.

David Troy is an entrepreneur and disinformation researcher based in Baltimore, Maryland.

Disinformation researcher, thinker, writer, entrepreneur, TED speaker, and data visualization geek. Twitter: @davetroy Email: davetroy@gmail.com

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