Artificial intelligence, surveillance and electoral manipulation

The method used by the company is to obtain access to or acquire personal databases and then analyze them applying a method to establish “psychografic” profiles.

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The data management company Cambridge Analytica, which calls itself the “brain” of the Trump campaign offers its services in Mexico since 2016, and in fact one of its (ex?) employees has expressed on social networks that they will be “the brain behind the next presidential elections” in the country (El Financiero Bloomberg 25/1/18


The case is disquieting, not only because of the intention to manipulate elections, but also because it exposes the use and manipulation that can be made of our data, that for personal reasons, work, access to public, medical, educational or entertainment services, the majority of us give to different institutions and companies. This situation is combined with the increasingly extended network of cameras for public and private surveillance, geographic satellite information, extension of internet networks and new ways of mining data and the extrapolation of these with artificial intelligence programs.


The best known cases of Cambridge Analytica are the election of Trump to the presidency and their intervention to achieve a vote in favor of Brexit. In an interview with the journal Vice in 2017, the company affirmed they had participated in 32 elections around the world and “had only lost one” (


Cambridge Analytica (CA) is an enterprise of recent formation in the United States, but bought SCL in the United Kingdom, a company that since 1993 has been carrying out military and electoral research and strategic communication, including military and electoral “psychological” operations. The principal shareholder is Robert Mercer, a US informatics expert and multimillionaire from the extreme right. He was a programmer at a US Air Force laboratory, later was with IBM and then became a millionaire with a high risk investment fund that used algorithms in financial markets. He is also the principal investor with Breitbart News, an agency dedicated to the creation of often falsified news, that among other things promotes racism, freedom to use arms, climate-change denial and support for Trump. Steve Bannon (now retired from the Trump administration) is the co-founder of Breitbart news and was vice-president of Cambridge Analytica.


We know that in 2017 Trump did not win the elections by a majority of direct votes (he had almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton) but due to the US electoral system, which involves indirect voting through an Electoral College with state quotas for the votes. Cambridge Analytica offered Trump their services, with a strategy that looked simple: instead of convincing a majority of the population, they would devote their efforts to convincing, with adequate arguments, a small part of the electorate that could give him a majority in traditionally democratic states (Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania). The Trump campaign focused on these states, with open and subliminal advertising to specific persons through social networks, messages and telephone calls with high emotional content, with promises–although they had no intention of fulfilling them–that appealed directly and selectively to their issues of dissatisfaction, in particular those of the Democrat or undecided electorate.


The method used by the company is to obtain access to or acquire personal databases, from institutions, companies, banks, shops, social networks, and then analyze them applying a method to establish “psychografic” profiles. From the analysis of commentaries and relations in social networks, of the “likes” or not, to what and to whom, they established maps of possible relational, commercial, thematic and political preferences. By crossing these with geographic data, they came up with possible dissatisfactions, desires and preferences by region, which also enabled marketing addressed directly to individuals. Facebook, for example, already sells adverts designed to reach selected profiles and regions. The documental of the German agency DW “Dirty Game, how Trump won the elections” gives an account of some of these manipulations, and even claims that part of the ads in different media and networks, were subliminal, that is to say that the receiver was not conscious of having seen them, but that their brain got the message (


According to reports cited by El Financiero, an employee of the company–who CA denies was their chief of operations–had recruited personnel to work in the internet company Mowisat (whose physical address is the same as that of Cambridge Analytica in Mexico City) that offers to install satellite internet connections in extensive unconnected rural areas, as well as free air time with the application, in exchange for allowing direct ads to their mobile (tinyurl.comy9jl82gc).


Clearly, in order for the CA system to work, the “target” people must have access to the internet, social networks, etc., which increasingly is promoted even for free by telephone companies, that probably compensate the “expense” with the sale of data and that kind of ads to companies like this one.


The issue has many facets and, while it is a serious matter, the manipulation of elections is only one of them. It also exposes the control and surveillance to which we are exposed due to new information and communication technologies, that can be used both by companies and political and military interests. This does not mean that such methods really have the expected results–we are not robots and “artificial intelligence” still depends on the programming and interpretation that human beings make. But it is urgent to advance in collective discussion on the implications of these and other new technologies (


(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)

-Silvia Ribeiro is a researcher with the ETC Group
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