CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA’S ALEXANDER NIX: Bond villain, tech genius or hustler?
LONDON — The British press and parliamentarians — and his own former employees — are divided over how to characterize the mysterious, plummy, exquisitely tailored Alexander Nix, founder of the now infamous Cambridge Analytica, the London data-munchers who boasted they helped Trump win election and are now suspected of violating the privacy of tens of millions of Facebook users.
Many lawmakers here, and in Washington and further abroad, want to hear more from Nix. But he has gone dark since he was suspended last week — ousted after he was caught bragging on hidden camera that his company’s operatives could entrap political rivals in far-off lands with beautiful Ukrainian women.
On Tuesday, Nix was described as a kind of Dr. Evil by one member of the British parliamentary committee investigating Cambridge Analytica, alongside Facebook and fake news, who wondered aloud during a public hearing in the House of Commons whether the 42-year-old Nix might have fashioned himself the leader of SMERSH, a nemesis of the fictional James Bond.
At the hearing, Christopher Wylie, Nix’s former director of research and now whistleblower, said he saw less 007, more hustler.
“He’s a salesman, he likes to sell stuff,” Wylie told the committee, explaining that as head of Cambridge Analytica, Nix’s job was to woo clients, not write algorithms.
“He has no background in psychology, technology, marketing or politics,” the whistleblower told The Washington Post.
Wylie said that Nix and his company didn’t care whether they broke laws in developing countries, as long as they won elections for their clients — in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and the Caribbean.
Asked what he thought might be Nix’s next move, Wylie — a Brexit supporter who sports pink hair and a nose ring — suggested, “Jail?”
Wylie told the parliamentary committee members that what Nix told them last month about his company’s use of Facebook data was “exceptionally misleading and, to be frank, not only misleading, but dishonest.”
The company has denied wrongdoing. Nix denied using Facebook data inappropriately.
Nix did not respond to text and telephone messages from The Post seeking comment.
Nix landed at SCL Group in 2003, the progenitor of Cambridge Analytica, which was founded in 2013 with funding from Republican mega-donor Robert Mercer in partnership with former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon.
Nix has a reputation as a polished presenter, a dealmaker who donned his Savile Row suits as armor to do battle in hotel lobby bars in Africa and Asia — and hard-sell his product, which was influencing people and winning elections.
“He had a standard pitch,” Wylie said, which was, we have the best and brightest in the best offices at the best addresses in London and Cambridge, and by the way, I went to Eton.
“It was all designed to present a very posh veneer to clients, where this went down very well, in developing countries in the commonwealth,” said Wylie.
Nix attended the exclusive Eton College and after that the University of Manchester. He worked in banking and finance, in Mexico City and London, in his 20s and 30s.
Yet, there are gaps in the basic Nix bio.
The Internet tells us that he plays polo, quite well, for a team called the Libertines and others. There are plenty of photos of Nix astride his ponies.
But his polo friends are no longer answering phone calls from the press.
Married? Children? The Daily Mail reported last week on “a vast home in west London, which he and his girlfriend, Norwegian shipping heiress Caroline Paus, bought for £4.5 million [$6.4 million] in February 2012.”
In his testimony in Parliament on Tuesday, Wylie said they once delayed a meeting because Nix had to pick up a $280,000 chandelier.
Three of his former employees told The Post that Nix was, alternatively, a hard-charger, a bully, a mentor, an idea man, charming, a phony and the real deal.
One former employee, who declined to be named because he had signed a nondisclosure agreement, said Nix was a devoted family man.
An associate who worked with Nix in 2012 in the run-up to the national election in Kenya said, “He was very aggressive, a typical, ‘I’m extremely posh and therefore I know what I’m doing.’ You know the type,” he said.
In media profiles published before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, Nix was hailed as a “genius.”
But extremely private. He once threatened to walk out of an interview that began with basic questions about family, upbringing and school, protesting that no one wanted to know what breakfast cereal he ate.
Billed as a rock star in the data-tech conference circle, Nix provocatively proclaimed that the old days of putting up clever advertisements designed by creative types to lure consumers were over, and that a new age was upon us, with microtargeting of voters based on data-mined psychological profiles of individuals’ deep hopes and fears.
Alternatively, his competitors dismissed Nix as a huckster “selling snake oil.” Or as a Financial Times columnist put it: “an adman bigging up his data-science firm.” Adding scornfully, “There are lots of them.”
Last week, Nix was suspended as chief executive of Cambridge Analytica “pending a full, independent investigation.” This came hours after Britain’s Channel 4 broadcast a segment showing Nix, captured on hidden video, boasting that his company could employ operatives to pose as wealthy developers to entrap overseas politicians into accepting bribes on hidden video cameras.
Nix told the BBC he was speaking with a certain amount of “hyperbole” and humoring the Channel 4 undercover team. That defense has not gone well.
Last week, a British parliamentary committee investigating fake news and Facebook requested that Nix return to speak before the panel, alleging that his testimony in February might have been misleading.
“We are also interested in asking you again about your claim that you ‘do not work with Facebook data,’ ” which was challenged by recent revelations in the British and American press.
The letter closed with a warning: “Giving false statements to a select committee is a very serious matter. We urge you to come forward and explain your comments at a committee hearing.”
On Friday, Britain’s High Court granted the information commissioner a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s files and servers in London. Investigators spent seven hours in the offices.
Hours before the first exposé appeared last week, Nix told the BBC that Cambridge Analytica was approached in 2014 by “a very respectable academic,” Cambridge University psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, “who said he had the wherewithal, the legitimate and legal wherewithal, to collect data on Facebook users that we might be able to use as part of our model.”
As part of Kogan’s research, Facebook provided the academic with access to data on 57 billion Facebook friendships, according to a research paper the professor co-authored.
Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Sunday apologized for “a breach of trust,” the statement being carried in advertisements placed in major newspapers, including The Post.
“We only work for mainstream political parties,” Nix said in an interview immediately after the Trump victory in November 2016 in Tech Crunch. “Tories, Labour, Republicans, Democrats. We steer clear of fringe political parties or minority groups. We’re not trying to orchestrate a revolution.”
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