The last two years have been a rollercoaster ride for Matt Oczkowski. On the night of the 2016 presidential election, he sat inside then-candidate Donald Trump’s San Antonio campaign headquarters, where he led a team of anxious data scientists crunching numbers throughout the day before an unexpected victory party at a local bar much later that night. The former Scott Walker aide spent the following year speaking to the press and at conferences around the world about the Trump team’s winning strategy. But that professional peak soon descended into months of fending off accusations about the company he worked for while on the campaign: Cambridge Analytica.
“When I first joined there, I legitimately believed in the offering and what they were trying to do,” Oczkowski says. “It’s unfortunate that some actions by a few actors at the senior level of the company reflected poorly on the entire company.”
In the wake of a data privacy debacle involving the misappropriation of as many as 87 million Facebook users’ personal data, Cambridge Analytica has since ceased operations and become the subject of international investigations. Though Oczkowski left the company in April 2017, long before the scandal broke, he now joins hundreds of former employees trying to start over in a world that has, almost overnight, begun looking at the field of data science not as novel and innovative, but as intrusive and inescapable.
‘We’re trying to figure out what shapes your worldview.’
Matt Oczkowski, Data Propria
For Oczkowski, that new beginning means starting a data company called Data Propria. The firm officially launched earlier this year, and has already begun working with corporate clients and politicians, including Illinois governor Bruce Rauner’s reelection campaign. It’s owned by a parent company called CloudCommerce, which also recently acquired the digital marketing firm belonging to Brad Parscale, Trump’s current campaign manager and the 2016 campaign’s former digital director. Now, working out of Data Propria’s San Antonio headquarters with some of his colleagues from that 2016 run, Oczkowski hopes to continue the data analytics work he started back then.
But that work comes at a time when the very idea of data-driven advertising has become the subject of international scrutiny and regulation. Facebook, one of the biggest data collectors in the world, has been called before international lawmakers to testify about its data practices. And just last week, the European Union’s new data privacy regulations went into effect, giving consumers more ownership over their data and requiring businesses to get users’ explicit consent to use and collect their data.
These changes will necessarily inform the way Data Propria and other data analytics firms operate. Still, Oczkowski acknowledges there will be plenty of “overlap” with Cambridge Analytica. Like that company, Data Propria will focus on behavioral data science, which is essentially the practice of using data to target people with ads and marketing based on, as Oczkowski puts it, people’s “motivational behavioral triggers.”
“We’re trying to figure out what shapes your worldview,” he says. To that end, Data Propria will conduct its own research and polling for clients, develop its own targeting models based on what it learns from those polls and other datasets, and work with a creative team to help them develop ads that are most likely to appeal to people based on those models. The firm will especially focus, Oczkowski says, on middle America. Oczkowski believes the work he did helping sell a candidate in those states easily translates to helping commercial clients sell products.
“There are few people who understand middle America like we do,” Oczkowski says of himself and Parscale. He also plans on building out products similar to the ones Cambridge Analytica’s team built for the campaign. One in particular used data to determine what cities then-candidate Trump should visit based on local support in that place. Oczkowski argues the same tool could help businesses determine where to expand.
Despite Cambridge Analytica’s pariah status, Oczkowski remains an advocate for the company’s work. “Cambridge for better or for worse, depending on how people see them, innovated in this space and pushed the space a long ways,” he says, noting that giant ad agencies like Ogilvy have recently launched their own behavioral data science operations. Meanwhile, academics and marketing professionals have increasingly raised questions about whether this type of behavioral targeting even really works.
Despite Cambridge Analytica’s pariah status, Oczkowski remains an advocate for the company’s work.
Oczkowski acknowledges that any data shop operating in a post-Cambridge Analytica world will necessarily have to think differently about privacy and transparency. Just last week, Vermont became the first US state to pass a law forcing companies like Acxiom that sell people’s data to register with the state. As regulators increasingly force these companies to rethink their business models, Oczkowski says, firms like Data Propria will need to focus on ways to more accurately target people based on the groups they’re affiliated with, not the personally identifying information that can be gleaned from data brokers. For now, companies like Data Propria still have plenty of data streams to pull from, but as Facebook and others overhaul their privacy practices, it’s unclear how long those streams will last.
“There’s a healthy discussion going on about privacy, and I think that’s a discussion absolutely worth having. Then there’s another conversation about convenience and being able to get messaging that matters to you and appeals to you,” Oczkowski says. “I think there’s a happy middle ground in between there that the public has to reconcile, because I don’t think the answer’s going to come from the government or some regulation any time soon.”
Despite Oczkowski’s clean break from Cambridge Analytica, CloudCommerce is hardly without controversy of its own. In February, the Associated Press reported that Jonathan Lei, the former CEO of the company when it operated under a different name, was the subject of an FBI sting operation in 2006, and later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit securities fraud. And according to court filings reviewed by WIRED, current CloudCommerce CEO Andrew Van Noy settled a real estate fraud suit in 2010 alleging he accepted $100,000 to buy property in Park City, Utah, and instead spent it on his “personal uses.” In a 2010 bankruptcy filing reviewed by WIRED, Van Noy also reported just over $16,000 in annual income, while his LinkedIn profile reflects that at that time, he was working at Morgan Stanley, managing “over $300 million dollars worth of transactions.”
Gail Gitcho, a former press secretary for the Republican National Committee and a spokesperson for CloudCommerce, said the Associated Press article was “problematic,” and that “Jon Lei has no operational, managerial, or shareholder control of the company. He does not make any decisions on behalf of the company, nor does he have any role in the day-to-day operations.” She did not answer specific questions on the record about Van Noy’s real estate dealings or his bankruptcy filing. After initially offering an interview with Van Noy, Gitcho declined to make him available after WIRED asked questions about his background. In a press release Tuesday, Van Noy said, “The introduction of Data Propria is a crucial step in CloudCommerce’s vision of helping clients learn how data can drive behavior as a change agent for the good.”
Parscale, who now sits on the CloudCommerce board, did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.
Oczkowski maintains he was unaware of this history before joining the company. “The stuff with CloudCommerce happened long before I was involved,” he says. “The stuff I’ve read in the press isn’t really representative of what I know these guys to be.”
Critics of Cambridge Analytica say the world is moving away from Oczkowski’s data-based targeting. “With new legislation popping up in the US, one has to wonder what restrictions will inhibit Matt’s ability to build his business the way he wants to,” says David Carroll, an associate professor at Parsons School of Design, who is suing Cambridge Analytica in the UK for access to his data. “There’s a risk in being bullish about this stuff, but if he can create a model that is transparent and ethical and adheres to the highest standards of the world, then more power to him.”
Oczkowski hopes to prove his critics, and critics of behavioral data science writ large, wrong. “The reaction to this shouldn’t be for us to peel back and say, ‘Hey this isn’t a good thing. We shouldn’t be doing this,'” he says. “It should be figuring out what are the fair ethical standards that align marketers with consumers?”
Exactly what those standards will entail remains an open question, one that Oczkowski and the rest of his industry are still trying to answer—even as they expand their data-driven pursuits.