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Cambridge Analytica's Suspended CEO Takes The Spotlight In Scandal


Until this week, Alexander Nix wasn't exactly well known. He was the CEO of the firm Cambridge Analytica until yesterday, when he was suspended. That firm is in trouble for pulling the personal details of tens of millions of Facebook users and then using that data to influence the 2016 U.S. election. And Nix himself is in hot water after Britain's Channel 4 secretly filmed him saying that he uses spies - attractive women and clandestine video recording - to trap political opponents. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has been following all this and joins us now from London. Hey, Joanna.


MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about Alexander Nix. What are we learning about him?

KAKISSIS: Well, he's from Notting Hill. And it's an affluent area of London. He went to an elite boarding school, Eton College. And he worked in finance. And then later, he met Steve Bannon. And it was Bannon who introduced Nix to Robert Mercer, the computer scientist and hedge fund billionaire who's also a big Republican donor.

MARTIN: Right.

KAKISSIS: Mercer bankrolls the data mining firm Cambridge Analytica, which Nix became the head of in 2013. And, you know, Nix - he largely avoided the limelight until the firm started helping Republican presidential candidates. And then it was Nix himself who started getting the attention.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please welcome to the stage Alexander Nix, chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica.

KAKISSIS: It's September 2016, and Alexander Nix is at the Concordia Summit in New York City.


ALEXANDER NIX: It's my privilege to speak to you today about the power of big data in the electoral process.

KAKISSIS: Tall and bespectacled, with the look of a 19th century aristocrat, Nix paces the stage and explains the importance of psychographics.


NIX: That is an understanding of your personality because it's personality that drives behavior and behavior that obviously influences how you vote.

KAKISSIS: This philosophy appears to have fueled the success of both Cambridge Analytica and Nix himself. In 2017, he's the keynote speaker at the Online Marketing Rockstars festival in Hamburg, Germany.


NIX: The evolution taking place in marketing and communications from mad men to math men.

KAKISSIS: But someone there questions his firm's use of data gleaned from a personality quiz on Facebook. Nix says it's not Machiavellian.


NIX: Well, they're voluntarily giving up their data. They're doing this, you know, in full knowledge of what's happening here.

KAKISSIS: But they don't know that this data can be used to influence.

CHARLES KRIEL: I can shout in your ear, and nobody around you can hear me shouting.

KAKISSIS: Charles Kriel advises the British Parliament special committee on digital issues.

KRIEL: And this changes the way propaganda works because at least before, when you conducted a propaganda or influence campaign, others around you would be aware of it, too. Now I can just talk to you.

KAKISSIS: Alexander Nix may have run out of influence. He had been working out of a central London office building, which tour guide Heiko Khoo (ph) has now taped up with posters showing Nix behind bars.

HEIKO KHOO: This is the most outrageous abuse.

MARTIN: So, Joanna, now Nix has been suspended, right? He's no longer, at least for the moment, the CEO of this firm. What's next for him and for Cambridge Analytica?

KAKISSIS: So now congressional Democrats and the British Parliament both want him to come in and testify on the misuse of data. So we'll be seeing how that goes.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Joanna Kakissis in London for us this morning. Thanks, Joanna.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.