Journeys in Blockchain: Brittany Kaiser of Own Your Data Foundation

“I started to see that it was the blockchain community who would be happy to have me. My expertise was appreciated instead of being looked down upon.”

by Darren Kleine 16 min April 30, 2020
Journeys in Blockchain with Brittany Kaiser of Own Your Data Foundation
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Britanny Kaiser will never escape Cambridge Analytica. Perhaps if she had gone back to humanitarian work. Perhaps if she had decided to work in consulting.

But as a champion of digital privacy rights? Whether Kaiser’s apparent one-eighty on privacy represents rebranding or redemption will be a question that threatens to overshadow her advocacy.

Even her role in the Cambridge Analytica data-mining scandal has stirred a hearty element of bipolarity among observers. She’s described (often by herself) as a whistleblower; others see an opportunist who abandoned ship on the last remaining life-raft.

Whoever Kaiser was, she’s certainly not shy about who she is today: an evangelist for data protection rights. She’s emerged from the Facebook privacy scandal with a mission… and a book deal. Perhaps dancing with the devil has given her enough insights into his moves to shoot him in the back.

Bananas foster political instincts

Kaiser’s first sense of personal empowerment emerged from a school trip she took to Costa Rica at the age of thirteen. She visited a “sustainable perma-culture island — one of the coolest communities I had ever seen”. During her stay there, hosts took the students to nearby areas where companies like Dole and Chiquita had established large banana plantations. She describes the moment she witnessed widespread pollution and human suffering caused by the industry. “I was so depressed about it. It really hurt me.”

Returning to Chicago, Kaiser began her first-ever campaign, urging her school and other schools around Chicago to stop ordering Dole and Chiquita products. “It was the first time where I saw that there was something wrong and I could drive people to care about that.” She rallied school communities to sign petitions and to order products from companies that inflicted less harm on the environment. “I saw that I, as an individual, had a huge impact.” This led to the next logical step: “How do I amplify that? How do I get other people to realize that, too?”

Kaiser started thinking about getting more involved in supporting politicians who she felt were striving to make a positive social impact. Volunteering for political campaigns, she would spend hours writing to undecided voters, encouraging them to vote and seeking to convince them to act on policies she felt were important.

She spent hours contributing her time to the Howard Dean campaign, the first to successfully use digital technology to fundraise. She labored from her dorm room at boarding school using new digital tools to encourage people to get out and vote. “Remote digital activism was my first way to get involved,” she says. She recognized how the technology greatly extended the potential reach of political messaging.

There’s a lot to be said for grassroots activism at the local level, but there’s also a lot to be said when you can talk to millions or billions at once.

Kaiser wanted to learn how to effect change on a societal level, using technology to engage and drive people to action. The 2007 Obama campaign is often considered the first major political movement to employ a sophisticated social media strategy, and working on that campaign gave Kaiser the chance to face challenging fundamental questions about civic participation: How could you get people to care about politics? How could you get them to see that if they did get involved, they would have the power to make a difference?

Kaiser continued to delve further into politics during her time at the University of Edinburgh, focusing on international relations, diplomacy and human rights law. She became involved with local chapters of Amnesty International, and learned about human rights abuses and war crimes. Her intention was to work as a human rights lawyer, but what really intrigued her was the notion of preventing the issues from arising in the first place. “That was where I started to get more into my research on big data. How do you prevent these things from happening? That has to do with what data you have access to and how you can predict a crisis before it happens and actually intervene. That’s when I started getting very involved with human rights activism.”

Following her time in Scotland Kaiser spent a year in Hong Kong, where she met activists who were fighting against what they perceived to be oppressive Chinese policies, and individuals who were running an underground railroad to help North Korean refugees escape from the country safely. “I saw what it meant to help people evade surveillance.”

First exposure to Bitcoin

During this time she got to know Bitcoin as a currency that many of the activists used to tip each other for information, and trading in exchange for work. “I got pretty excited about it,” she says. Kaiser made friends with early Bitcoin miners at a time that the currency was valued at around a dollar. She would pay for things for them in dollars and they would send her “a load of Bitcoin” in return.

Although she received hundreds of Bitcoins at the time, she didn’t think the novel currency was ever going to be much of a big deal. She thought it was just a digital sort of money, but it sparked an interest. “I saw how it worked. I saw that a lot of the people in the human rights community and different groups online that I had been following were very involved in international cypherpunk activities. Everybody started to talk about it. That’s when I started to follow the blockchain industry and started to get interested in what this actually meant for humanity.”

Kaiser didn’t jump headfirst into blockchain like a lot of other people, she says, but as a potential tool for privacy, anonymity, activism, communication, and as a way to share value with others “it definitely kept my interest”.

Leaving Hong Kong in 2011, Kaiser began working on writing her PhD in preventive diplomacy in London. Much of her time was spent researching how to prevent global crises before they happen. “It ended up being all about big data sets.”

She wondered, “What data do governments, militaries and NGOs have access to, that allows them to make a decision that is supposed to prevent something before it happens?” Kaiser explains that at law school, not too many people knew anything about advanced predictive algorithms, so she began exploring the concept herself. Around this time she was introduced to the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, an expert in data science who, Kaiser says, “could teach me a thing or two about it.”

Working with Cambridge Analytica

A family crisis forced Kaiser to make her first move into a salaried career. “My family lost basically everything in 2008. It took quite a few years for that to have a snowball effect and to really destroy everything. We lost our family home in 2014, which was when I joined Cambridge Analytica.”

Kaiser had previously worked without a salary because she could always come home and live at her parents’ house if need be. “But that was no longer viable in 2014. So I started working at this company part-time in order to do research for my PhD.” From that point forward the job, she says, became “an all-encompassing thing”.

When she first joined Cambridge Analytica she saw the opportunity to learn how to use new digital data tools to achieve her goals. The first product she was shown amazed her. “Cambridge was training NATO-allied militaries to use data online to identify young people who were vulnerable to being recruited into ISIS.” The company helped run counter-propaganda communications “to keep kids safe at home with their families instead of sneaking into Syria”.

This instilled a deep sense of purpose in Kaiser. “This is what I want to be able to do with my life! Let’s get involved in these large-scale humanitarian projects because it seems like a very scientific and measurable way to prove you are doing something good and effective.”

The next logical step in Kaiser’s mind was to harness the technology in the realm of politics. She started cooperating with politicians, political parties, companies, governments, and military forces around the world. Working with data scientists she helped clients predict behavior and drive people toward taking certain actions “from registering to vote, to buying a product, to doing something for their family’s safety”.

I got very, very into it. I ended up being at Cambridge Analytica for quite a few years and learning a lot more about data science than I bargained for.

In 2016, just a month before the U.S. presidential election, her father underwent brain surgery. “It became very obvious that he was never going to be able to work again.”

The timing may help to explain the decisions she made next. Kaiser discovered the depths of the Facebook privacy scandal soon after the family health crisis. “I’ve never been more shocked and offended than by what I saw my colleagues had done in that campaign. A lot of people would have just quit to go do something else, but I didn’t really have any fall-back plan. You kinda have to have a safety net if you’re gonna quit your first-ever permanent salaried job.”

Instead, Kaiser says, she decided to stay with the company. She considered what she could do that would still “bear fruit, make me happy, and be more in line with my vision”. She had no interest, she says, in getting involved “with this Trump campaign and Trump administration stuff, which had taken over the company. A lot of people were quitting because of it.”

Advocating for blockchain

Simply leaving and finding work elsewhere was no simple task, she explains. “I thought if I quit now, if somehow I find enough of a cushion or fall-back plan and quit and do something else, what would it be? Now that I’ve publicly been a part of Cambridge Analytica, I don’t think the Democrats will take me. I don’t think any of my human rights buddies are going to want to talk to me for a while. So what am I actually gonna go do? Where can I go?”

“It felt lonely and like I had few options except to find something within Cambridge that would work for me.”

Kaiser stayed on, but returned to the blockchain industry in her spare time, researching it and attending conferences. Digging into how distributed ledger technology could help manage data in a permissioned and transparent way, and how it could offer individuals the opportunity to own and control their own assets, Kaiser was hooked. “I got very obsessed with the data ownership idea.”

She began adapting what she was learning about blockchain technology into her work at Cambridge Analytica. She started a blockchain division within the commercial advertising department at the company. “I found something I could do that would make me happy and that would not be personally offensive.”

Kaiser even started bringing in blockchain clients to the company. “This is the future of data management” she enthused, “data transfer, permission structures; this was something everyone in the company needed to know about”. Her goal was to revolutionize the data science industry with a Cambridge Analytica-built solution. The blockchain-enabled advertising ecosystem would allow consumers to own their data.

The idea, she says, was that advertisers would directly and verifiably reach customers, while the clients would benefit from data that was relevant and specifically permissioned. “But there was still a lot of baggage there. To think that they could turn from being, you know, an infamous data science company working with people like Donald Trump to being able to be the new golden age of transparency in data ownership. It was a bit of a big jump for some people to swallow.”

Leaving Cambridge Analytica, heading to Wyoming

Despite her association with Cambridge Analytica, Kaiser’s knowledge about data science, along with her aspirations to improve transparency and data ownership, carried considerable weight in the blockchain industry. “I started to see that it was the blockchain community who would be happy to have me. My expertise was appreciated instead of being looked down upon.”

“A lot of people in the blockchain industry are libertarians and anarchists anyway, so they didn’t care if I was working with Republicans or Democrats. That wasn’t very interesting. It was more of a technical conversation about how we build technologies that have legitimate and measurable impact. That was really exciting for me. I’ve finally found my people. Now I’ve just gotta get as involved in the industry as possible.”

“I got lucky to get introduced to a lot of great thought-leaders very early,” she says. Brock Pierce told her about Caitlin Long’s blockchain advocacy work in Wyoming and Kaiser went to the state to support the cause. She helped push acceptance for the new technology “flying 150 people into the state to testify in person”, explaining to legislators why new blockchain laws were important, why the technology was important, and how it could positively affect society. “That’s how we started to get all those laws passed so quickly. We met with every single person in the House and the Senate. That allowed me to leave Cambridge.”

Kaiser talks about making the decision to leave the company. “After too many red flags about the way the data was being used, I felt like enough’s enough. I can’t stay here any more. I now feel like I’m so welcomed in the blockchain community and I care so much about so many of these projects, that if I quit, I’m going to be okay. I’m going to be able to get into this industry.”

“Seeing how receptive they were, seeing them vote ‘yes’ was very inspiring. I just want to keep doing this because when you explain to people why blockchain is important, it’s very tangible. It makes sense. Even non-technical older legislators, they get it when you put it in simple terms about why this industry matters.”

A number of the blockchain professionals who had joined Kaiser in her work in Wyoming formed the Digital Asset Trade Association, or DATA, a non-profit advocacy organization. Working with DATA she supported the writing of legislative amendments and lobbied for the advancement of blockchain technology.

“So when there are legislative initiatives that need to be supported, we will help draft or send people to Congress to do expert testimony or help draft amendments. All of us at DATA work in the blockchain community and have other full-time occupations but tend to drop what we’re doing when in-person lobbying needs to happen.” Kaiser continues to work with DATA and is now helping other countries adapt Wyoming-style blockchain legislation.

The near-miss at Phunware

Kaiser’s new career in blockchain was almost derailed before it even began in earnest. She agreed to take a position on the advisory board for a Texas company, Phunware, which specializes in developing mobile geolocation technology and which offered tokens via an Initial Exchange Offering on Liquid Global last year.

But Kaiser soon discovered that Phunware had accepted the opportunity to work with American Made Media Consultants — a political consultancy firm founded by Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, and described by The Intercept as “the campaign’s highly effective digital media branch”.

“I found out about it from a journalist, actually.” She recalls the investigative journalist called her up, asking if she was advising Phunware. She responded that she hoped to sign a contract with the company soon.

“Do you know that they’re working for the Trump campaign?” the reporter asked.

I was like, wait — What? Excuse me? They’re working for who? I didn’t even know they had a political division.

Accepting the Trump campaign as a client, she explains, would be “a grossly unethical conflict of interest, considering I was a witness to the impeachment trial and openly called Donald Trump a massive criminal”.

As a whistleblower, Kaiser says, “It was a little awkward.” She says she withdrew from negotiations.

“All I got was a massive amount of reputational damage from them.”

Own Your Data Foundation

Kaiser says her work today spans three distinct sectors: law and regulation, advising tech and data companies, and education.

She contributes to the advancement of law and regulation by advising governments on blockchain legislation, privacy, data protection and digital asset ownership. She advises data technology and blockchain companies, helping them develop best practices with digital identity, data management, smart contracts, data monetization, and ownership platforms. And she recently co-founded the Own Your Data Foundation with her sister Natalie, to provide digital literacy training using a new system of measure called the DQ, or Digital Intelligence Quotient. The indicator set, she explains, has been developed over ten years by prominent universities, think-tanks, and ministries in the fields of science and innovation.

The Own Your Data Foundation’s mission is to teach data rights and protection, including how to spot misinformation and avoid hacking and phishing attempts. It encourages learners to consider how to have a more ethical relationship with technology, how to manage screen time, and to develop digital intelligence when interacting with social media.

This is all stuff we’re now starting to be taught in schools, but all of us didn’t learn it growing up.

Make a big difference to data sovereignty with small changes

Kaiser aims to help make true data ownership a reality. She envisions a future in which individuals have control over their data and their assets, in which technology infrastructure enables digital rights, and legal and regulatory infrastructure protects those rights in countries around the world. The educational piece, she says, is key, “so people understand how to exercise the data rights we’re working so hard to pass”.

Kaiser emphasizes that small, individual actions make a big difference. “Always remember that you have the agency. The decisions you make every single day will not only affect your life but the lives of others. There are little things you can do every day to make a difference.”

She suggests starting with examining everyday privacy compromises and making the necessary adjustments.

“If you have never taken the time to read your privacy settings, do it. If you’ve never read any of the terms and conditions of any of the apps on your phone, do it. If you’re not comfortable with what they say, delete the app. You could use Signal or Sense Chat instead of WhatsApp. You could decide to try out Voice or Chirp instead of spending your time on Facebook and Twitter. You could use Brave browser or DuckDuckGo instead of Chrome. There’s just little things every day that will contribute towards you having more control over your data and more control over what your virtual life looks like.”

It might take time to see the change, she admits. “It’s baby steps right now. We don’t have comprehensive solutions yet, but I think over the next couple years it’s going to change drastically.”

Whether Kaiser’s call is embraced by data sovereignty advocates may depend on how swayed they are by her account of her journey.

After all, as another famously-private Keyser once said, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

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Darren Kleine at Cointelegraph Magazine

Darren Kleine

Based in Canada, Darren Kleine is fascinated with distributed ledger technology and its implications for societal change. He had written the Cointelegraph Journeys in Blockchain feature since day one.