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Long Before Cambridge Analytica, Simulmatics Linked Data and Politics

NPR reporter Shannon Bond reports of a little-known — and now nearly entirely forgotten — company called Simulmatics, which had technology that used vast amounts of data to profile voters and ultimately help John F. Kennedy win the 1960 election. From the report:
The […] company was called Simulmatics, the subject of Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore’s timely new book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. Before Cambridge Analytica, before Facebook, before the Internet, there was Simulmatics’ “People Machine,” in Lepore’s telling: “A computer program designed to predict and manipulate human behavior, all sorts of human behavior, from buying a dishwasher to countering an insurgency to casting a vote.”

Lepore unearths Simulmatics’ story and makes the argument that, amid a broader proliferation of behavioral science research across academia and government in the 1960s, the company paved the way for our 21st-century obsession with data and prediction. Simulmatics, she argues, is “a missing link in the history of technology,” the antecedent to Facebook, Google and Amazon and to algorithms that attempt to forecast who will commit crimes or get good grades. “It lurks behind the screen of every device,” she writes.

If Then presents Simulmatics as both ahead of its time and, more often than not, overpromising and under-delivering. The company was the brainchild of Ed Greenfield, an advertising executive straight out of Mad Men, who believed computers could help Democrats recapture the White House. He wanted to create a model of the voting population that could tell you how voters would respond to whatever a candidate did or said. The name Simulmatics was a contraction of “simulation” and “automation.” As Greenfield explained it to investors, Lepore writes: “The Company proposes to engage principally in estimating probable human behavior by the use of computer technology.” The People Machine was originally built to analyze huge amounts of data ahead of the 1960 election, in what Lepore describes as, at the time, “the largest political science research project in American history.”

Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower: US Heading In ‘Same Direction As China’ With Online Privacy

“The United States is walking in the same direction as China, we’re just allowing private companies to monetize left, right and center,” Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie told CNBC on Wednesday. “Just because it’s not the state doesn’t mean that there isn’t harmful impacts that could come if you have one or two large companies monitoring or tracking everything you do,” he said. CNBC reports:

Wylie, whose memoir came out this week, has become outspoken about the influence of social media companies due to the large amounts of data they collect. In March 2018, he exposed the Cambridge Analytica scandal that brought down his former employer and resulted in the Federal Trade Commission fining Facebook, 15 months later, $5 billion for mishandling. While Cambridge Analytica has since shut down, Wylie said the tactics it used could be deployed elsewhere, and that is why data privacy regulation needs to be dramatically enhanced.

“Even if the company has dissolved, the capabilities of the company haven’t,” he said. “My real concern is what happens if China becomes the next Cambridge Analytica, what happens if North Korea becomes the next Cambridge Analytica?” Wylie also said he believes that social media companies should, at a minimum, face regulation similar to water utilities or electrical companies — “certain industries that have become so important because of their vital importance to business and people’s lives and the nature of their scale.” In those cases, “we put in place rules that put consumers first,” he added. “You can still make a profit. You can still make money. But you have to consider the rights and safety of people.”