Every fresh Donald Trump-adjacent horror brings with it a strangely vivid new cast of hacks and hangers-on, the low-level bad guys who bumble through misdeeds on behalf of eviler and more powerful forces while remaining far enough from the levers of power to retain some of their rough edges. There was Rob Goldstone, the “CUNTY” music publicist with a taste for funny hats who helped orchestrate Don Jr.’s Russian meeting in Trump Tower; Sam Nunberg, the ousted early campaign staffer who’s now most famous for blabbering through a series of TV interviews about his own plans to ignore a federal subpoena, possibly while drunk; Jay Sekulow, the presidential attorney who spends his weekends playing in a crappy classic rock band with the onetime lead singer of Kansas, and so on.
The latest scandal concerns Cambridge Analytica, a data firm funded by the right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer that once included Steve Bannon on its board and was contracted by the Trump campaign to provide so-called “psychographic” models of the American electorate that would help guide the campaign’s digital operations. The most immediately gripping character in the Cambridge Analytica saga is Christopher Wylie, a 28-year-old savant who helped create Cambridge’s software but became disillusioned with its mission, later leaking documents to reporters showing that the company had improperly gathered its data from the profiles of 50 million Facebook users, the vast majority of which had not consented to making their information available. Wylie has pink hair and wears camo and futuristic sneakers, coming off a bit like the slick hacker antihero of a William Gibson novel—the “data nerd who came in from the cold,” as the Guardian memorably put it in a story about Wylie from Sunday. Wylie could not provide definitive proof that Trump’s team actually used Cambridge’s Facebook data, because he left the company before it joined the campaign; but, he said in a Today show interview, “What I do know was that this is the foundation of Cambridge Analytica—Cambridge Analytica was founded on misappropriated data.”
But Wylie is not the only Cambridge player who could have been pulled from the pages of dystopian sci-fi. Take, for instance, Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American academic in Cambridge University’s neuroscience department who actually collected the Facebook data on Cambridge Analytica’s behalf. (Bannon apparently chose the company’s name after it hired academics from the university to work there.) According to the Guardian and New York Times, under the auspices of academic research, Kogan created a personality quiz Facebook app that collected detailed private information about the people who took the quiz and their Facebook friends. Kogan then allegedly passed the information to Cambridge Analytica, violating the terms of his agreement with Facebook that it would be used only for his academic work. Making matters even shadier, Kogan’s scheme was apparently not even original: the Times and Guardian both reported that Kogan essentially copied the research methods of colleagues at the university’s Psychometrics Centre, who had declined to work with Cambridge Analytica when the company approached them.
Kogan is pretty low in the pecking order compared to Mercer, Bannon, or even Alexander Nix, Cambridge’s chief executive. But he does deserve notice as the guy who actually made their nefarious plan a reality. Also, the Guardian notes that Kogan has a post at St. Petersburg University in addition to his job at Cambridge University, where he has received grants from the Russian government to research social networks. This revelation, along with some others—an advisory role to Cambridge occupied by Michael Flynn, who resigned as Trump’s national security advisor after lying about his contact with Russian officials; a pitch in Wylie’s leaked documents from Cambridge to Lukoil, a Russian oil producer with strong ties to the government there—make it easy to wonder whether the company is a link in the story of alleged Trump-Russia collusion.
Finally, there’s the business of Kogan’s name, which really seals his status as this story’s most bizarrely compelling lackey. He once legally changed it “to Dr Spectre, but has subsequently changed it back to Dr Kogan,” according to an eye-catching aside in the Guardian story. (The decision was apparently prompted somehow by Kogan’s marriage, though Spectre was not his wife’s maiden name, either. “We chose Spectre as a derivative of Spectrum,” he once wrote on Facebook.) With a name as ominous as Dr. Aleksandr Spectre, it’s almost as though his role as the executor of a plot to secretly harvest information about tens of millions of individuals in order to elect a vicious demagogue was destined in advance. The fact that he chose it for himself makes it even more cartoonishly evil. As in the case of Lousie Linton stroking giant sheets of dollar bills with black leather opera gloves, or Roger Stone dressing like the Penguin in Batman Returns, it’s like these people really relish playing the role of villain.