Brittany Kaiser burst into the limelight as a controversial Republican kingmaker — a young Chicagoan who, while running business development for Cambridge Analytica, helped marshal the data of tens of millions of Facebook users to press the 2016 presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.
Her involvement has been so essential to the country’s fight for democracy that Alex Bornyakov, Ukraine’s deputy minister of digital transformation, told The Washington Post his nation’s war effort wouldn’t have been the same without her. “Brittany has been a great friend — a great friend for me and for Ukraine,” he said in an interview, citing both Kaiser’s strategic game-planning and social media connections as the country has fought against the bloody invasion. “We’re really happy to have her.”
To many familiar with Kaiser’s story, championing Ukraine’s cause might seem like an unexpected transformation. At Cambridge Analytica, Kaiser not only worked closely with Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon but also helped foster the company’s relationship with Kremlin-linked Russian energy firm Lukoil. But Kaiser says her new work fits with a redemption tale that started when she began leaking damning information about her former employer after it came under fire in 2018.
The news of Kaiser’s role in aiding Ukraine adds a fresh twist to a complex character-study of a millennial (she’s now in her mid-30s) who combines cutting-edge digital tools with old-fashioned political instincts. And it raises questions of how to process a world in which technology can so often scramble ideology.
More than 100,000 people around the world have used crypto to donate to Ukraine’s war effort in a kind of grass-roots corollary to foreign-government aid. Ukrainian officials estimate that at least $100 million has come into its coffers, with tens of millions more pouring into NGOs such as Come Back Alive, which was started to benefit pro-Ukrainian fighters in the country’s east. The funds have enabled Ukraine’s purchase of everything from medical supplies to food to bulletproof vests.
Kaiser has landed in the middle of this story after a long odyssey.
Back during the 2016 presidential election campaign season, Cambridge Analytica — with the help of Facebook — improperly collected data on tens of millions of people so it could target “persuadables” in swing states with a barrage of ads. Many pundits believe the gambit got Trump elected.
Central to the effort was Kaiser, who in 2015 began working for the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL, securing numerous key partnerships. She gained a measure of fame as the scandal began to boil over in 2018, testifying at a parliamentary inquiry in the United Kingdom, releasing documents and positioning herself as a whistleblower. (Cambridge Analytica was also retained by Brexit’s Leave movement that led to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.)
Her celebrity received a boost from the 2019 Netflix documentary “The Great Hack,” in which Kaiser came off as a kind of fraught hero seeking to atone for her privacy-invading sins. Kaiser also published a whistleblowing memoir, “Targeted,” and started an organization, Own Your Data, that advocates for citizens’ reclaiming their data from invasive exploiters.
In the past few years, Kaiser also has remade herself as an advocate for crypto, the tech-based monetary system that some people believe can be a democratizing political force. Kaiser has advised Wyoming lawmakers on a set of crypto-friendly laws and worked on the presidential campaign of Brock Pierce, the child actor-turned-crypto millionaire who made a statement run in 2020. He is now running for the U.S. Senate as an independent in Vermont.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Kaiser jumped right into the scrum. She negotiated with former global soccer star David Beckham for him to promote crypto donations on his social media accounts.
She pushed for more cryptocurrencies to be accepted by the Ukrainian government. (Some 15 now are.)
She also worked with Gavin Wood — the crypto-tech pioneer who helped found the blockchain ethereum — to facilitate his donation of millions in the Polkadot currency he created, and recruited further donors within the “Polkadot community.” To do this, Kaiser used what amounts to both a back-channel charm offensive and rallying public tweets. Crypto fundraising is much like the real-world kind — the skill lies in knowing where to look (and whom to thank). Wood did not reply to a request for comment.
Speaking recently by phone from Paris, where she has been meeting with government leaders for crypto-based human-rights efforts, Kaiser said she felt an obligation to jump into the Ukraine struggle.
“They’re up and down in bomb shelters, so me figuring out what to tweet was much easier,” Kaiser said, letting go a trademark big laugh.
She says that the exact amount she has been responsible for is difficult to pinpoint. But she can ballpark it. “It’s hard to say altogether — maybe a couple-hundred-million raised across wallets?”
Soon after she started raising money, Kaiser began traveling with high-ranking Ukrainian officials like Bornyakov and digital transformation minister Mykhailo Fedorov in their barnstorming tours around the world, even helping to convince them in May to travel to a crypto pavilion she had previously set up at Davos, her youthful energy matching the Ukrainian government’s can-do techie-ism. Her relationship with Bornyakov has become so close, she said, that they text “basically every day.”
Bornyakov said that in addition to bringing on big donors, Kaiser has helped with the setup of “multisig” wallets — the advanced crypto-storing app seen as safer because it requires validation from more than one user.
“It’s amazing what she’s doing,” he said.
But not everyone accepts Kaiser’s redemption story, seeing in it a story of opportunism more than selflessness.
“Brittany will do a lot of Machiavellian things in her career and makes it seem like she’s altruistic, when it all just depends on who she’s working for,” said David Carroll, a digital-rights activist who sued Cambridge Analytica and who has closely followed Kaiser’s work.
He cited Cambridge Analytica’s alleged brutal tactics against Nigerian opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, among others, as evidence of her hired-gun ways.
“With Brittany, the tale she tells is never the whole story,” he added.
Kaiser disagrees with these criticisms. She sees a clear moral arc in her professional life, from which Cambridge Analytica was just an unfortunate deviation.
“At Cambridge, I didn’t realize that what I was doing most of the time had no ethical or moral compass,” she said. “But I’ve always been a very active human-rights activist,” citing her work as a member of Barack Obama’s media team during his first presidential campaign. “And this is as good a cause as you can find.”
Kaiser seeks to turn even her Cambridge tenure as a noble moment. On the speakers’ website of CAA, which represents her, she identifies as “Cambridge Analytica whistleblower.”
Others, however, have questioned that view. Fellow ex-Cambridge employee Christopher Wylie criticized the whistleblower claim in his memoir, saying Kaiser’s willingness to spill the beans came only after she had little other choice.
And some reviewers of “Targeted” observed a strange lack of penance. “Like Breaking Bad, by the end of it you get the sense that she’s more concerned with her own legacy than reckoning with any wrongdoing of her own part,” NPR said in its review.
Some have also noted Kaiser’s involvement with polarizing players, such as Kaiser’s alleged links to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as chronicled extensively in a set of stories by the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr.
Kaiser’s latest turn will do little to dissuade some skeptics, given that the very value of a cryptocurrency rests on what those critics say is finding a greater fool to buy it. Kaiser’s actions go to the heart of crypto’s moral ambiguity, in which one person’s idealism is another person’s hustle.
But she dismisses those crypto naysayers as forcefully as she waves away her own.
“Crypto gives people access to services and funds they wouldn’t have had,” she said, citing bank freezes that would have made traditional-currency transfers to Ukraine much more difficult.
“It’s this overarching place that’s more consensual and democratic. And that really fits with what I believe.”