SCL Elections, now the infamous data-driven elections firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), was able to obtain Trinidad and Tobago’s census data in 2014.
A former member of the Congress of the People (COP), turned whistle-blower to the Express, recounted the experience of working with SCL Elections and its two representatives at the time—MacArthur Zimmerman and Marcus Beltran—when the company was in Trinidad.
The COP had hired SCL/CA in 2013 for a consultancy after the firm had already worked for the People’s Partnership, in its successful election in 2010. CA has attributed the successful election of then-opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar to the post of prime minister to the “Do So” campaign it created to suppress votes.
The Express was told it was former national security minister Jack Warner, then-deputy political leader of the UNC, who brought SCL/CA to Trinidad in 2010—but Warner has denied doing so.
The whiste-blower recalled that while the 2011 census was the base on which SCL/CA wanted to build its platform, it requested of COP officials marriage registry, divorce registry, hunting and fishing licence registry, land registry, companies registry, IP rights database, as well as polling district-level results and turnout figures for all past elections.
In e-mail threads obtained by the Express, SCL noted all this information could be accessed by then-legal affairs minister Prakash Ramadhar, the leader of the same party for which it had a consultancy.
“The key difficulty has stemmed not from the legality of acquiring the requisite data, but rather capacity within the Trinidad and Tobago Central Statistical Office to anonymise individual census data and a lack of political will among relevant COP-affiliated ministers to make the data available,” a 2013 status report on the consultancy stated.
While the company did not get the data in 2013 when it worked for the COP, SCL got its hands on it in 2014 when it worked for the UNC, he told the Express.
To substantiate his claims, he provided e-mails and threads of conversations of the interaction with top COP officials and SCL’s personnel, Zimmerman and Beltran, requesting the information.
He explained that this was the data the company needed to do its election marketing and forecasting.
Shift in portfolios
The former COP member explained Zimmerman and Beltran provided support to the COP for the 2013 local government elections and then for Ramadhar’s re-election as COP leader in 2014.
He explained the COP at the time had lost key spots in the government—former planning minister Mary King was fired for “acting improperly” with regard to a contract, former political leader Winston Dookeran was moved from the Ministry of Finance and Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan was moved from the Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries.
The shift in portfolios for Dookeran and Seepersad-Bachan were viewed as a demotion for the COP, which at time was struggling to maintain an independent role in the government.
To this end, the COP decided to contest the local government elections in November 2013.
That’s when SCL Elections came into the picture.
SCL/CA, he said, was key to helping the party design flyers, deal with advertisements and write speeches. He recalled the team pushed to get access to more information, but met with little success.
The former COP member told the Express the UNC gave access to the census data for SCL/CA in 2014.
Zimmerman, at that time, was working on the data for the UNC.
After King was fired, she was replaced by another COP official—Dr Bhoe Tewarie.
Tewarie, as minister of planning, had access to the census data.
While Tewarie was a COP member of the government, in 2015 he contested elections on a UNC ticket as MP for Caroni Central.
When the Express contacted Tewarie last Saturday, he denied any knowledge of SCL, any involvement with the company or any data breach on his part.
“I categorically deny everything,” he told the Express.
The UNC has denied SCL/CA did any work for the party, or that any breach happened under its watch.
Zimmerman went on to work in the Trump campaign, the COP member told the Express.
In e-mails, which the Express has shared among COP officials, SCL/CA said it had acquired the browser history of about 100,000 people.
The former COP member recalled that while the party was financially strapped, the SCL/CA consultancy was paid for by a contractor which had received millions of dollars in state contracts during the PP’s administration.
In 2018, Ramadhar told the Express SCL did a consultancy, but the party could not afford it on a long-term basis.
“I do remember there was a small team here. But the truth is we couldn’t afford them. It was nothing extraordinary, doing work with press releases and public relations,” he had said.
The former member noted SCL was building a Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) system for the COP.
According to a 2013 status report, this is what SCL stated:
“• We have already acquired 208,000 registered telephone numbers and have begun attributing them to the latest voter information.
• We have also obtained Internet usage records of 108,000 (and counting) unique IP addresses from Trinidad and Tobago with associated data including: Continent, Country Name, Region Subdivisions, City Name, Postal Code (some), Latitude (The latitude and longitude are near the centre of the most granular location value returned: postal code, city, region, or country), Longitude, ISP Name, Organization or ISP, Domain Name, User Type (Including cellular connection identification), Accuracy Radius, Country Confidence Factor, City Confidence Factor, Region Confidence Factor, Postal Code Confidence Factor, Visited URL, time stamp, user agent and more.
• From last week we started the process of reaching back through past social media activity for significant events and obtaining all of the posts, tweets, and associated activity for Trinidad and Tobago. We will also reach back through those who have liked the COP pages to build lists of potential activists and influencers.”
The document noted that SCL’s support to the COP “to date has included full-time support by four consultants during the local government election, ongoing party capacity building and press and public relations support in the aftermath of the elections, the establishment of a Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) system for the COP and the carrying out of a full programme of Behavioural Research to inform the party’s understanding of the Trinidad and Tobago electorate and allow for CRM to be applied to a full programme of micro targeting to win over voters between now and the next general election.”
While she was chairman of the COP, Nicole Dyer-Griffith was copied all the correspondence shared with the Express.
The Express had previously reported that former national security minister-now-Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith met with SCL employees from 2013-2014.
At the time, Griffith confirmed he had met with them and he referred them to the chair of the COP at the time—his wife, Nicole Dyer-Griffith.
For her part, Dyer-Griffith had told the Express that while she remembered the team, “the COP was not in a position to afford their services”.
Last week, she again told the Express: “I recall at that the COP had little to no resources, however, they were introduced to us as wanting to assist voluntarily with press releases, as we could not afford their services. May I also add, I found their outputs rather weak, and with little cultural relevance.”
In 2018, when Griffith was questioned about whether the firm worked for the Ministry of National Security, given the documentation in the possession of the Express, he answered: “I can’t recall. They sent proposals. But I don’t think anything was ever approved for my ministry.”
In 2013, SCL Social—a subsidiary of the SCL Group—submitted a 48-page proposal to the Ministry of National Security, titled “Behavioural Research Programme into Crime in Laventille and Effective Resource Policing & Crime Prediction Software”.
According to an e-mail thread, Griffith met with the SCL team.
SCL/CA’s chief executive at the time, Alexander Nix, agreed on US$750,000 for research and creative; and US$250,000 for implementation of creative and programme design. “SCL has set itself apart from the competition by understanding target group behaviour through the application of scientific methodology,” it said.
According to the SCL document, SCL personnel listed included Chris Wylie, Dr Bent Clickard, Marcus Beltran and Dr Alexander Kogan.
As its recommendation, it listed Commander AS Tatham, the commanding officer of 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group.
Last week, excerpts from Wylie’s book, Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America, were forwarded to the TTPS by National Security Minister Stuart Young for a criminal investigation. Griffith has recused himself from the matter.
SCL/CA came under global scrutiny after its former employee-turned-whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed the company harvested over 50 million Facebook users’ data without their consent.
It had used a personality app, “thisisyourdigitallife”, created by Cambridge University researcher Alexander Kogan.
It has had significant ramifications for Facebook, which now has to pay the US-based Federal Trade Commission (FTC) a $5 billion fine for the data breach.
In 2017, the UK Guardian reported “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”.