Hexbyte  Tech News  Wired One Man’s Obsessive Fight to Reclaim His Cambridge Analytica Data

Hexbyte Tech News Wired One Man’s Obsessive Fight to Reclaim His Cambridge Analytica Data

Hexbyte Tech News Wired

It’s 8 on a Wednesday morning in January, and David Carroll’s Brooklyn apartment, a sunny, wood-beamed beauty converted from an old sandpaper factory, is buzzing.

His 10-year-old daughter, dressed in polka-dot pants, dips out the front door and off to school, Jansport backpack slung over her shoulders. His 5-year-old son darts into the living room in a luchador mask he picked up on the family’s holiday trip to Mexico. (His wrestling name, he tells me, is Diablo.) Carroll’s wife, Alex, who was unaware a reporter was coming to interview her husband this morning, hurries around picking up the detritus any family of four might leave behind in the morning rush and tucking away product samples from her job as a market researcher. There’s a crayon drawing on the coffee table, an intricate toy camping scene set up on the floor. And on the refrigerator, someone—I suspect the boy—has spelled out the word POOP in multicolored alphabet magnets.

For most everyone in Carroll’s bustling household, today is a morning like any other. Not for Carroll. This morning, he rolled out of bed at 6 am to news that the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, the now defunct international conglomerate, had pled guilty to criminal charges of disobeying a British data regulator.

The story of how the data analytics firm and former Trump campaign consultant misappropriated the Facebook data of tens of millions of Americans before the 2016 election is by now well known. But the company’s guilty plea wasn’t really about all those headlines you’ve seen splattered in the news over the past year. Instead, their crime was defying a government order to hand over all of the data they had ever collected on just one person: David Carroll.

For more than two years, Carroll, a professor of media design at The New School in Manhattan, has been on an obsessive, epically nerdy, and ultimately valuable quest to retrieve his data from Cambridge Analytica. During the 2016 election, when the firm worked for both the Trump campaign and senator Ted Cruz’s campaign, its leaders bragged openly about having collected thousands of data points to build detailed personality profiles on every adult in the United States. They said they used these profiles to target people with more persuasive ads, and when President Trump won the White House, they hungrily accepted credit.

A year ago, Carroll filed a legal claim against the London-based conglomerate, demanding to see what was in his profile. Because, with few exceptions, British data protection laws allow people to request data on them that’s been processed in the UK, Carroll believed that even as an American, he had a right to that information. He just had to prove it.

Carroll shuffles past me barefoot, a mug of coffee in one hand, his phone in the other. “Enjoy the moment,” he says, reading a message from his lawyer, Ravi Naik, who’s been feeding him updates from London all morning. About an hour later, an email floats into Carroll’s inbox from the British Information Commissioner’s Office, the regulator that brought the charges. Carroll turns his phone toward me to reveal the news. Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, is being fined the equivalent of roughly $27,000. Carroll’s cut? About $222.

He couldn’t help but laugh. The sum is insignificant. The moment, anything but.

When he started out, Carroll was an underdog, facing off against a corporation with ties to the president of the United States and backed by billionaire donor Robert Mercer. If he lost, Carroll would be on the hook for the opposing team’s legal fees, which he wasn’t quite sure how he’d pay.

But if he won, Carroll believed he could prove an invaluable point. He could use that trove of information he received to show the world just how powerless Americans are over their privacy. He could offer up a concrete example of how one man’s information—his supermarket punch card, his online shopping habits, his voting patterns—can be bought and sold and weaponized by corporations and even foreign entities trying to influence elections.

But more importantly, he could show what’s possible in countries like the UK where people actually have the right to reclaim some of that power. He could prove why people in the United States, who have no such rights, deserve those same protections.

Much has changed since David Carroll picked this fight with Goliath. Following a relentless flood of scandals last spring, SCL shuttered and is now going through insolvency proceedings in the UK. The Cambridge Analytica scandal spurred just the kind of privacy awakening in the US that Carroll was seeking. Facebook tightened its hold on user data and has been increasingly asked to answer for all the ways it gave that data away in the first place. A strict data protection law passed unanimously in California last summer, and members of Congress have begun floating plans for broader federal privacy legislation.

Carroll, meanwhile, has emerged as a cult hero of privacy hawks, who follow every turn in his case, Twitter fingers itching. This week, he’ll become a movie star, appearing as a central character in a feature-length documentary called The Great Hack, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. “We hope this film sheds light on what it means to sign the terms and conditions that we agree to every day,” the filmmakers, Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, explained in an email. “What does it mean when we actually become a commodity being mined?”

But for all that’s changed during these past two years, so much has stayed the same. Despite SCL’s guilty plea, Carroll still hasn’t gotten his data. And Americans today have no more legal rights to privacy than they did when Carroll’s crusade began two years ago. That could change this year. With a strict data protection law set to go into effect in California next January, even tech giants have begun pushing for federal regulation that would set rules for businesses across the country. Now more than ever, Carroll says, having that information in hand could help illustrate exactly how this new economy—so often misunderstood and discussed in the abstract—works. Which is why, nearly a year after the Cambridge Analytica story broke, and many months after its name has fallen out of the daily headlines, Carroll keeps fighting.

If you know Carroll from Twitter—where, as @profcarroll, he spends his days tweeting bombastically about Facebook’s duplicity or stridently skewering obscure figures from the Trump campaign in long, snarky, and inscrutable threads—then you couldn’t possibly imagine the nervous, affable guy I first met in a downtown Manhattan coffee shop back in 2017.

He looked exactly the way I expected a tenured liberal arts professor to look: gray stubble on his face, a disarming smile. I could easily imagine him in tweed. It was November 8, a year to the day since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. That evening, Carroll sat across the table from me, a lit tea light casting his face in a film noir glow, and told me what he knew so far of his story.

Carroll hadn’t always been in academia. During the dotcom boom and bust, he worked in digital marketing and watched as advertising evolved from the sort of broad branding exercise that had been the dominion of television and print to an industry dominated by Google, which used infinite quantities of user data to hyper-target ads. When he left his marketing career to teach full time, Carroll, who has an MFA in design and technology, transformed from an industry participant to a chief critic, lecturing students on what he calls the “myth” that advertising doesn’t work if it’s not targeted.

When Carroll picked his fight with Cambridge Analytica, he worried about putting himself and his family at risk. In the UK, whoever loses a legal suit has to pay the other side’s fees. Carroll raised more than $40,000 on CrowdJustice to form his own legal defense fund.

Bryan Derballa

In 2014, while he was on sabbatical, Carroll began working on a startup called Glossy, which integrated with Facebook to recommend articles from magazine archives based on users’ interests. The idea never took off; Carroll couldn’t get funding, and his early employees got quickly poached by tech giants. But he got just far enough to see how much user data Facebook was willing to give away in the name of growth. At the time, the social networking giant allowed developers to slurp up data not just from their own users but from their users’ friends, all without their friends’ awareness or explicit consent. Facebook didn’t officially end this policy until April 2015, and continued to give some developers access even after that.

“I saw how the sausage got made and how easy it was to amass data and create a surveillance infrastructure,” Carroll says.

Around that same time, across the Atlantic Ocean, another young professor at the University of Cambridge named Aleksandr Kogan was building an app of his own. It used a personality quiz to collect users’ profile information, including their location, gender, name, and Page likes, and then spit out predictions about their personality types. Like Carroll, Kogan knew that when Facebook users took the quizzes, not only would their data be free for the taking, so would the data belonging to millions of their friends. Unlike Carroll, Kogan viewed that not as an invasion of privacy but as an opportunity.

“It didn’t even dawn on us that people could react this way,” Kogan says.

Beginning in 2014, Kogan paid about 270,000 US Facebook users to take the quiz, which Kogan has said unlocked access to some 30 million people’s data. But Kogan wasn’t just working on his own. He was collecting this information on behalf of SCL, which had big plans to use it to influence American elections. Kogan sold the data and his predictions to the company, and though he didn’t know it then, lit the fuse of a time bomb that would detonate three years down the line.

Carroll knew none of this at the time. But his experience building Glossy made him enough of a self-proclaimed “privacy nerd” that by the time the 2016 election rolled around he was keeping a close eye on the presidential campaigns and their digital strategies. He was watching SCL’s spinoff Cambridge Analytica, in particular, because it had taken credit for helping senator Ted Cruz win the Iowa primary, using so-called psychographic targeting techniques. But it wasn’t until President Trump’s upset victory, in a campaign that had been buoyed by Cambridge Analytica data scientists and consultants, that Carroll, a Democrat, began to worry about what this firm could really do with millions of Americans’ information.

He wasn’t the only one. Thousands of miles away, in Geneva, Switzerland, a researcher named Paul-Olivier Dehaye, who now runs a digital rights nonprofit called PersonalData.IO, was deep into a months-long investigation of SCL. At the time, he was trying to answer a fundamental question about the company that was also rumored to have played a hand in promoting the Brexit referendum: Did Cambridge Analytica really know as much as it claimed? Or was it just selling snake oil? One way to answer that question conclusively, Dehaye believed, would be to see what information the company actually held.

The UK’s Data Protection Act guarantees the right to access data that’s processed within the UK. But in the past, it was mainly British residents who had exercised that right. Few had ever tested whether the law applied to people outside of the country as well. Dehaye believed this would be the perfect opportunity to try, so he began reaching out to American academics, activists, and journalists, urging them to submit what is known as a “subject access request” to the company. It was Americans’ data, after all, that Cambridge Analytica seemed most interested in. Carroll was one of Dehaye’s targets.

“David was very vocal on Twitter, and he already knew a lot about ad tech,” Dehaye says. “That’s why I thought I had a chance to convince him.”

He was right. Carroll was one of a handful of people who accepted the challenge. He says he viewed the project as an academic experiment at first, and, he says, a good use of his tenure. “I can’t get fired for what I do,” he said. “My job gives me the freedom to pursue these things. If I don’t do it, who’s going to?”

In early 2017, Carroll submitted his request, along with a copy of his driver’s license, his electric bill, and a £10 fee, which Dehaye paid. Then he waited. Dehaye never really expected Carroll to receive a response. In fact the story may have ended there, had SCL denied that Carroll had the right to his data from the outset. “They could have just said UK law doesn’t apply to you because you’re an American,” Dehaye says.

Instead, one Monday morning about a month later, as Carroll sat alone in his apartment, sipping coffee at the dining room table, an email landed in his inbox from the data compliance team at SCL Group. It included a letter signed by the company’s chief operating officer, Julian Wheatland, and an Excel file laying out in neatly arranged rows and columns exactly who Carroll is—where he lives, how he’s voted, and, most interestingly to Carroll, how much he cares about issues like the national debt, immigration, and gun rights, on a scale of one to 10. Carroll had no way of knowing what information informed those rankings; the thousands of data points Cambridge Analytica supposedly used to build these predictions were nowhere to be found.

“I felt very invaded personally, but then I also saw it was such a public interest issue,” Carroll says.

He promptly tweeted out his findings. To Carroll, his file seemed woefully incomplete. But to Dehaye and other experts of the internet, it seemed like exactly what he needed to prove a case. In answering Carroll at all, Dehaye argued, SCL conceded that even as an American, he was entitled to his data. But in showing him only the smallest slice of that data, Carroll and Dehaye believed, SCL had broken the law.

Dehaye put Carroll in touch with Ravi Naik, a British human rights lawyer, who had worked on data rights cases in the past. “Immediately, he was like, ‘This is going to be a massive case. It’s going to set precedents,’” Carroll says.

Still, Naik was cautious, knowing that the case law regarding foreigners gaining access to their data was extremely limited, resting on just two cases where death row inmates from Thailand and Kenya had attempted to get their data from the British police. But Naik also viewed Carroll’s case as the beginning of a new civil rights movement. “It’s really balancing the rights of individuals against those with mass power,” Naik says.

In April 2017, Carroll and Naik sent what’s known as a “pre-action” letter to SCL, laying out a legal claim. In the UK, these letters are used to determine if litigation can be avoided. In the letter, Naik and Carroll argued that not only had SCL violated the UK’s Data Protection Act by failing to give Carroll all of the underlying data, the company hadn’t received the proper consent to process data related to his political views to begin with. Under the law, political opinions are considered sensitive data.

Once again, Carroll got no additional data in return. According to Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica’s then-CEO, the company shared certain data with Carroll as a gesture of “good faith,” but received legal advice that foreigners didn’t have rights under the Data Protection Act. Asked why the company didn’t share more of that data, Nix said, “There was no legal reason to comply with this request, and it might be opening … a bottomless pit of subject access requests in the United States that we would be unable to fulfill just through the sheer volume of requests in comparison to the size of the company.” (After answering WIRED’s questions, Nix retroactively asked for these answers to be off the record. WIRED declined.)

Carroll wasn’t the only person who had tried and failed to get his data from SCL. Initially, Naik says, about 20 people around the world were on board. But when it came time to bring the case to court, he says, they needed only one complainant, and it was Carroll who was most willing to take the risk. “It says a lot about David that he’s willing to stand by not just his own rights but also the rights of everyone affected, to work out what this company was doing,” Naik says.

Carroll and Naik spent the bulk of 2017 preparing the case and hedging their bets against worst case scenarios, of which there were many. In the British legal system, whoever loses a legal case winds up paying the winning side’s fees. Carroll worried that could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, the kind of costs he couldn’t bear on his own. So that fall, Carroll launched his own legal defense fund on CrowdJustice and announced his plans to file the complaint in The Guardian. Suddenly, he was flooded with support from strangers who’d grown similarly suspicious of Cambridge Analytica. He raised nearly $33,000 in a matter of weeks. Today, he’s raised another $10,000 more.

In January, the British Information Commissioner found SCL guilty of refusing an order to return Carroll’s data. Carroll was awarded a small sum of money, but is still fighting for access to his information.

Bryan Derballa

But for all the encouragement Carroll received, almost as soon as he went public with his plans he also got more than a few words of warning. Once, Carroll says, a Cambridge Analytica employee approached him after a film screening at The New School, shook his hand for a few beats too long, and told him to drop the case. Another time, Carroll got a mysterious email about a British journalist who had supposedly been investigating SCL when he died suddenly falling down the stairs. “Please don’t forget how powerful these individuals are,” the email read.

It was almost certainly a coincidence, and Carroll never followed up with the woman who sent the email. “I didn’t want her to talk me out of it,” Carroll says. But he still couldn’t help but feel spooked. In the fall of 2017, he rightly felt like he had a lot to lose.

The night we met in the coffee shop, I asked Carroll whether all these risks he was taking worried him. He smiled anxiously and said, “It scares the shit out of me.”

A few months later, I spotted Carroll across a crowded auditorium at PutinCon, a gathering of reporters, foreign policy experts, intelligence officials, and professional paranoiacs being held in an undisclosed location in Manhattan. The express purpose of the conference was to discuss “how Russia is crippled by totalitarian rule” and explore how Russian president Vladimir Putin’s power “is based in fear, mystery, and propaganda.”

But Carroll had other matters on his mind. That day, March 16, 2018, his lawyers in London were finally serving SCL with a formal legal claim, requesting disclosure of his data and laying out their intention to sue for damages. The request had been more than a year in the making, and Carroll spent much of the morning darting out to the hallway, exchanging Signal messages with Naik, even though he was scared that any venue hosting something called PutinCon must have been hacked.

After Naik’s colleague served SCL with the paperwork, Carroll stood looking at his phone in satisfied disbelief. “It’s finally real,” he told me. “It’s not just an idea anymore.”

There was one other thing. Carroll said he’d heard “rumblings” from British journalist Carole Cadwalladr that some big news regarding Cambridge Analytica was coming from The Guardian and The New York Times. “It’s going to make Facebook look really bad,” he said.

Less than 24 hours later, Carroll turned out to be more right than he even knew. The next morning, photos of a pink-haired, self-styled whistleblower and former SCL contractor named Christopher Wylie were splashed across pages of The New York Times and The Guardian. “Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach,” read the Guardian headline. “How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions,” read the Times’. The night before, Facebook had tried to preempt the stories, announcing it was suspending Wylie, Cambridge Analytica, SCL, and Aleksandr Kogan for violating its policies against sharing Facebook data with third parties.

That hardly helped Facebook’s case. The news did more than make Facebook look bad. It did what history may judge to be irreparable damage to a company at the peak of its unprecedented power. Facebook’s stock price plummeted. Zuckerberg was summoned to Congress. The company gave itself the impossible task of auditing apps that had access to mass amounts of data, and began cutting off other developers from collecting even more. Google searches for “how to delete Facebook” spiked.

In the end, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that as many as 87 million people may have been affected by the data intrusion. Eventually, the Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation into whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree regarding its data privacy practices. “I started Facebook, and at the end of the day I’m responsible for what happens on our platform,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook days after the news broke. “While this specific issue involving Cambridge Analytica should no longer happen with new apps today, that doesn’t change what happened in the past.”

Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported that the FTC is considering “imposing a record-setting fine” against Facebook.

As bad as things were for Facebook, they soon got worse for Cambridge Analytica. Days after Wylie’s story first made headlines, Britain’s Channel 4 News began airing a series of devastating undercover videos that showed the firm’s once sought-after CEO, Alexander Nix, discussing using dirty tricks like bribery and blackmail on behalf of clients. In one case, Nix boasted that using Ukrainian women to entrap politicians “works very well.”

Nix has since denied that the company engages in those practices. “That was just a lie to impress the people I was talking to,” he told a parliamentary committee last summer. But almost as soon as the videos aired, Nix was replaced as CEO. By May, buried under an avalanche of negative press, SCL Group announced it was shutting down completely and filing for bankruptcy and insolvency in the US and the UK. Today, just one of its many corporate properties—SCL Insights—is still up and running.

As SCL was crumbling, Carroll’s case took on a new sense of urgency. He was thrown into the media firestorm, crisscrossing Manhattan as he discussed his claim on an alphabet soup of television networks. Suddenly, this wasn’t just a wonky academic endeavor to retrieve data from some company. It was a story about rescuing that data from the one company the public had decided, and Facebook had claimed, was singularly sinister. “Chris Wylie took the story that I knew was a big deal for a long time and made it a worldwide story, a household name,” Carroll says.

When the news broke in March, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office was already investigating SCL for its refusal to hand over Carroll’s data. Carroll and Naik had filed a complaint with the ICO in 2017. But for months, SCL told the regulator that as an American, Carroll had no more rights to his data “than a member of the Taliban sitting in a cave in the remotest corner of Afghanistan.” The ICO disagreed. In May, days after SCL declared bankruptcy, the regulator issued an order, directing the firm to give Carroll his data once and for all. Failure to comply within 30 days, they warned, would result in criminal charges.

SCL never complied. Julian Wheatland, director of SCL Group, told me he thinks the guilty plea the company issued in January is a “shame” and says it merely represented the path of least resistance for SCL’s liquidators, who oversee the insolvency proceedings and are duty bound to maximize the company’s assets. “There was little option but to plead guilty, as the cost of fighting the case would far outweigh the cost of pleading guilty,” Wheatland says. SCL’s administrators declined WIRED’s request for comment.

The ICO fine was ultimately measly. Carroll’s slice of it couldn’t buy him more than a MetroCard and a bag of groceries. It’s also no guarantee he’ll get his data. Naik is still waging that battle on Carroll’s behalf, as SCL’s insolvency proceedings progress. Meanwhile, an ICO spokesperson confirmed that the office now has access to SCL’s servers and is “assessing the material on them,” which could help to bring Carroll’s information to light.

But the ICO’s charges were meaningful nonetheless. It clearly underscored the fact that people outside the UK had these rights to begin with. “This prosecution, the first against Cambridge Analytica, is a warning that there are consequences for ignoring the law,” the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said in a statement following the hearing. “Wherever you live in the world, if your data is being processed by a UK company, UK data protection laws apply.”

By the time I interviewed Carroll in June 2018, about a month after SCL announced it was shutting down and just days after the ICO’s deadline had ticked by, the fear Carroll felt that first time we met had almost evaporated. We were in London to hear Cambridge Analytica’s fallen CEO Alexander Nix state his case before a committee of British parliamentarians. It seemed as if the entire cast of characters involved in the story had settled into the hearing room’s green upholstered chairs. There was Cadwalladr, The Guardian reporter who’d cracked the story open, and Wylie, the pink-haired source who’d helped her do it. Carroll sat to my right, busily tweeting every tense exchange between a defiant and defensive Nix and his inquisitors.

There was also a documentary film crew, stationed toward the back of the room. They’d been trailing Carroll for months.

When husband and wife team Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer initially set out to make what is now The Great Hack, back in 2015, they planned to follow the story of the Sony Pictures breach that had exposed the film studio’s secrets in what US intelligence officials said was an attack by North Korea. But as time went on, their attention, like that of the public’s, shifted focus from the ways in which private information is straight-up stolen to all of the little ways we give it away to powerful corporations, often without realizing it or knowing what will happen to it—and certainly without any way to claw it back.

That led them to Carroll. “We were initially drawn to David’s story because his mission to reclaim his data summarized the complexities of this world into a single question: What do you know about me?” the directors, who were nominated for an Academy Award for their film The Square, wrote in an email. “One of the things that has become increasingly clear is that whether David gets his data back or not, his case has brought to light some of the largest questions around data privacy.”

This weekend, Carroll will head to Park City, Utah, to see himself on the big screen. For Naik, the fact that a film like this is debuting to mainstream audiences represents an “astonishing step in the data rights movement.” “This shows a rapid change in interest in this field and the interest in data rights as a real and enforceable facet of human rights,” he says.

Over the past few years, these rights have expanded drastically. Last May, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation went into effect across the European Union, giving Europeans the right to request and delete their data, and requiring businesses to receive informed consent before collecting that data. The law also established stricter reporting protocols around data breaches and created harsh new penalties for those who violate them.

Last summer, the state of California unanimously passed its own privacy law, which lets residents of the state see the information businesses collect on them and request that it be deleted. It also enables people to see which companies have purchased their data and direct businesses to stop selling it at all.

Some of the most influential business leaders in the world have simultaneously rallied around the cause. In Brussels last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook condemned what he called the “data industrial complex” and called for a federal law that would prevent personal information from being “weaponized against us with military efficiency.” Even data gobblers like Google, Amazon, and Facebook have finally come out in support of a federal privacy law, partly due to the fact that such legislation could prevent the stricter California bill from taking effect in 2020.

If Congress is ever going to make good on its recent promises to crack down on rampant data mining, this could be the year. So far, senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has floated some draft legislation. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) proposed a bill that would task the FTC with drafting new rules. And in December, senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) introduced a bill of his own, cosponsored by 14 other Democrats, that requires companies to “reasonably secure” personally identifying information and promise not to use it for harm. It would also force businesses and the third parties they work with to notify users of data breaches and gives the FTC new authority to fine violators.

“Just as doctors and lawyers are expected to protect and responsibly use the personal data they hold, online companies should be required to do the same,” Schatz said in a statement when the bill was announced. “Our bill will help make sure that when people give online companies their information, it won’t be exploited.”

Carroll isn’t so sure. He says bills like this hardly address the underlying problem. If data is the new oil powering the economy, then what Schatz is proposing is a process for cleaning up the next oil spill. It’s not a set of safety procedures to prevent that spill from happening in the first place. That’s what Carroll says the United States, whose homegrown tech giants control so much of the world’s data, desperately needs. He continues to believe his SCL file would prove how badly it’s needed.

Cambridge Analytica may have taken data from Facebook that it didn’t have the right to, and Facebook may have made that data too easy to access. But the most overlooked fact in the whole saga is that Cambridge Analytica wasn’t alone. From data brokers that track your every purchase to mobile phone carriers that sell your location to social media companies that give far more detail to developers than is necessary, there’s an invisible, unregulated marketplace of personal information in the United States. And it’s no longer just being used to sell us new boots or connect us with high school classmates. It’s being used to influence decisions about who the most powerful people in the world get to be.

“They’re not the only ones by any stretch of the imagination,” Carroll says of SCL. “It’s a dirty business, but sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

This is, perhaps, the one issue on which Carroll and Wheatland, SCL’s director, see eye to eye. Wheatland predictably disagrees with the broad characterization of his company, whose very name has become a proxy for everything wrong with the data trade. He says Cambridge Analytica was a “lightning rod” for a confluence of feelings about President Trump’s election, Facebook, Brexit, and the rising use of data. “We found ourselves at the nexus of all of those and became the whipping boy,” he says.

He doesn’t find many sympathetic audiences for that message these days. But he, too, says that regulation is imperative, given the “huge power” of data modeling. And he too says there’s a risk to casting Cambridge Analytica as somehow unique. “This is an issue that is much bigger than one company,” he says. “If we take this villain mentality and think that we’ve moved on, we haven’t. We’ve lost Cambridge Analytica, but we haven’t moved on at all.”

Carroll is hardly pouring one out for the loss of Cambridge Analytica. Far from it. As he watched Nix stammer and squirm in his tailored suit that June afternoon in Parliament, Carroll couldn’t help but recognize how dramatically their roles had been reversed.

These last two years have been emotionally taxing and at times lonely for Carroll, who’s become absorbed by an issue that sometimes even the people closest to him failed to understand. But every new break in the case has provided some validation that it’s all been worth it. “I don’t feel like I’m up against the wall,” he told me the night of Nix’s hearing, the documentary crew’s cameras trained on his face. “They’re up against the wall.”

But he stopped short of declaring victory. Not until he gets his data back, and sees some real change come of it. “All I want is everything,” he said. “Because I’m entitled to it. And so is everyone.”


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Andrew Orchard lives near the northeastern coast of Tasmania, in the same ramshackle farmhouse that his great-grandparents, the first generation of his English family to be born on the Australian island, built in 1906. When I visited Orchard there, in March, he led me past stacks of cardboard boxes filled with bones, skulls, and scat, and then rooted around for a photo album, the kind you’d expect to hold family snapshots. Instead, it contained pictures of the bloody carcasses of Tasmania’s native animals: a wombat with its intestines pulled out, a kangaroo missing its face. “A tiger will always eat the jowls and eyes,” Orchard explained. “All the good organs.” The photos were part of Orchard’s arsenal of evidence against a skeptical world—proof of his fervent belief, shared with many in Tasmania, that the island’s apex predator, an animal most famous for being extinct, is still alive.

The Tasmanian tiger, known to science as the thylacine, was the only member of its genus of marsupial carnivores to live to modern times. It could grow to six feet long, if you counted its tail, which was stiff and thick at the base, a bit like a kangaroo’s, and it raised its young in a pouch. When Orchard was growing up, his father would tell him stories of having snared one, on his property, many years after the last confirmed animal died, in the nineteen-thirties. Orchard says that he saw his first tiger when he was eighteen, while duck hunting, and since then so many that he’s lost count. Long before the invention of digital trail cameras, Orchard was out in the bush rigging film cameras to motion sensors, hoping to get a picture of a tiger. He showed me some of the most striking images he’d collected over the decades, sometimes describing teeth and tails and stripes while pointing at what, to my eye, could very well have been shadows or stems. (Another thylacine searcher told me that finding tigers hidden in the grass in camera-trap photos is “a bit like seeing the Virgin Mary in burnt toast.”) Orchard estimates that he spends five thousand dollars a year just on batteries for his trail cams. The larger costs of his fascination are harder to calculate. “That’s why my wife left me,” he offered at one point, while discussing the habitats tigers like best.

Tasmania, which is sometimes said to hang beneath Australia like a green jewel, shares the country’s colonial history. The first English settlers arrived in 1803 and soon began spreading across the island, whose human and animal inhabitants had lived in isolation for more than ten thousand years. Conflict was almost immediate. The year that the Orchard farmhouse was built, the Tasmanian government paid out fifty-eight bounties to trappers and hunters who presented the bodies of thylacines, which were wanted for preying on the settlers’ sheep. By then, the number of dead tigers, like the number of live ones, was steeply declining. In 1907, the state treasury paid out for forty-two carcasses. In 1908, it paid for seventeen. The following year, there were two, and then none the year after, or the year after that, or ever again.

By 1917, when Tasmania put a pair of tigers on its coat of arms, the real thing was rarely seen. By 1930, when a farmer named Wilf Batty shot what was later recognized as the last Tasmanian tiger killed in the wild, it was such a curiosity that people came from all over to look at the body. The last animal in captivity died of exposure in 1936, at a zoo in Hobart, Tasmania’s capital, after being locked out of its shelter on a cold night. The Hobart city council noted the death at a meeting the following week, and authorized thirty pounds to fund the purchase of a replacement. The minutes of the meeting include a postscript to the demise of the species: two months earlier, it had been “added to the list of wholly protected animals in Tasmania.”

Like the dodo and the great auk, the tiger found a curious immortality as a global icon of extinction, more renowned for the tragedy of its death than for its life, about which little is known. In the words of the Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan, it became “a lost object of awe, one more symbol of our feckless ignorance and stupidity.”

But then something unexpected happened. Long after the accepted date of extinction, Tasmanians kept reporting that they’d seen the animal. There were hundreds of officially recorded sightings, plus many more that remained unofficial, spanning decades. Tigers were said to dart across roads, hopping “like a dog with sore feet,” or to follow people walking in the bush, yipping. A hotel housekeeper named Deb Flowers told me that, as a child, in the nineteen-sixties, she spent a day by the Arm River watching a whole den of striped animals with her grandfather, learning only later, in school, that they were considered extinct. In 1982, an experienced park ranger, doing surveys near the northwest coast, reported seeing a tiger in the beam of his flashlight; he even had time to count the stripes (there were twelve). “10 A.M. in the morning in broad daylight in short grass,” a man remembered, describing how he and his brother startled a tiger in the nineteen-eighties while hunting rabbits. “We were just sitting there with our guns down and our mouths open.” Once, two separate carloads of people, eight witnesses in all, said that they’d got a close look at a tiger so reluctant to clear the road that they eventually had to drive around it. Another man recalled the time, in 1996, when his wife came home white-faced and wide-eyed. “I’ve seen something I shouldn’t have seen,” she said.

“Did you see a murder?” he asked.

“No,” she replied. “I’ve seen a tiger.”

As reports accumulated, the state handed out a footprint-identification guide and gave wildlife officials boxes marked “Thylacine Response Kit” to keep in their work vehicles should they need to gather evidence, such as plaster casts of paw prints. Expeditions to find the rumored survivors were mounted—some by the government, some by private explorers, one by the World Wildlife Fund. They were hindered by the limits of technology, the sheer scale of the Tasmanian wilderness, and the fact that Tasmania’s other major carnivore, the devil, is nature’s near-perfect destroyer of evidence, known to quickly consume every bit of whatever carcasses it finds, down to the hair and the bones. Undeterred, searchers dragged slabs of ham down game trails and baited camera traps with roadkill or live chickens. They collected footprints, while debating what the footprint of a live tiger would look like, since the only examples they had were impressions made from the desiccated paws of museum specimens. They gathered scat and hair samples. They always came back without a definitive answer.

In 1983, Ted Turner commemorated a yacht race by offering a hundred-thousand-dollar reward for proof of the tiger’s existence. In 2005, a magazine offered 1.25 million Australian dollars. “Like many others living in a world where mystery is an increasingly rare thing,” the editor-in-chief said, “we wanted to believe.” The rewards went unclaimed, but the tiger’s fame grew. Nowadays, you can find the thylacine on beer cans and bottles of sparkling water; one northern town replaced its crosswalks with tiger stripes. Tasmania’s standard-issue license plate features an image of a thylacine peeking through grass, above the tagline “Explore the possibilities.”

With the advent of DNA testing and Google Earth and cell-phone videos, it became ever more improbable that the Tasmanian tiger was still out there, a large predator somehow surviving just beyond the edge of human knowledge. In Tasmania, the idea gradually turned into a bit of a joke: the island’s very own Bigfoot, with its own zany, rivalrous fraternities of seekers and true believers. Still, Tasmanians point out that, unlike Bigfoot, the thylacine was a real animal, and it had lived, not so very long ago, on their large and rugged and still sparsely populated island. As the decades passed, the number of reports kept going up, not down.

We are many centuries removed from the cartographers who used the phrase “Hic Svnt Leones” (“Here are lions”) to mark where their maps approached the unknowable, or who populated their waters with ichthyocentaurs and sea pigs because it was only sensible that the ocean would hold an aquatic animal to match every terrestrial one. We’ve learned quite a bit, since then, about where and with whom we live. By certain accounts, however, our planet is still full of unverified animals living in unexpected places. The yeti and the Loch Ness monster are famous; less so are the moose rumored to roam New Zealand and the black panthers that supposedly inhabit the English countryside. (The British Big Cat Society claims that there are a few thousand sightings a year.) Panther reports are also common across southern Australia.

Some of these mystery animals may be part of explicable migrations or relict populations—there are active, if marginal, debates about whether mountain lions have reappeared in Maine, and whether grizzlies have survived their elimination in Colorado—while others are said to be menagerie escapees. Australian fauna are reported abroad so often that there’s a name for the phenomenon: phantom kangaroos, which have been seen from Japan to the U.K. In some places (such as Hawaii, and an island in Loch Lomond), there are actual populations of imported wallabies. Elsewhere, the kangaroo in question was nine metres tall (New Zealand, 1831) or eschewed its usual vegetarian diet to kill and eat at least one German shepherd before disappearing (Tennessee, 1934).

What are we to make of these claims? One possible explanation is that many of us are so alienated from the natural world that we’re not well equipped to know what we’re seeing. Eric Guiler, a biologist known for his scholarship on thylacine history, was once asked to investigate a “monster” on Tasmania’s west coast, only to find a large piece of washed-up whale blubber. Mike Williams, who, with his partner, Rebecca Lang, wrote a book about the Australian big-cat phenomenon, told me that “people’s observational skills are fairly low,” a diplomatic way of explaining why someone can see a panther while looking at a house cat. In April, the New York Police Department responded to a 911 call about a tiger—presumably the Bengal, not the Tasmanian, kind—roaming the streets of Washington Heights. It turned out to be a large raccoon. Williams, who travels to Tasmania a few times a year to look for thylacines, described the continued sightings as “the most sane fringe phenomena.”

Another explanation is that the natural world is large and complicated, and that we’re still far from understanding it. (Tasmania got a lesson in this recently, when the government spent fifty million dollars to eradicate invasive foxes, a scourge of the native animals on the mainland, even though foxes were never proven to have made it to the island.) Many scientists believe that even now, in this age of environmental crisis and ever-increasing technological capability, more animals are discovered each year than go extinct, often dying off without us even realizing they lived. We have no way to define extinction—or existence—other than through the limits of our own perception. For many years, an animal was considered extinct a half century after the last confirmed sighting. The new standard, adopted in 1994, is that there should be “no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died,” leaving us to debate which doubts are reasonable. Because the death of a species is not a simple narrative unfolding conveniently before human eyes, it’s likely that at least some thylacines did survive beyond their official end at the Hobart Zoo, perhaps even for generations. A museum exhibit in the city now refers to the species as “functionally extinct”—no longer relevant to the ecosystem, regardless of the status of possible survivors.

Tiger enthusiasts are quick to bring up Lazarus species—animals that were considered lost but then found—which in Australia include the mountain pygmy possum (known from fossils dating from the Pleistocene and long thought to be extinct, it was found in a ski lodge in 1966); the Adelaide pygmy blue-tongue skink (rediscovered in a snake’s stomach in 1992); and the bridled nailtail wallaby, which was resurrected in 1973, after a fence-builder read about its extinction in a magazine article and told researchers that he knew where some lived. In 2013, a photographer captured seventeen seconds of footage of the night parrot, whose continued existence had been rumored but unproven for almost a century. Sean Dooley, the editor of the magazine BirdLife, called the rediscovery “the bird-watching equivalent of finding Elvis flipping burgers in an outback roadhouse.” The parrots have since been found from one side of the continent to the other. Is it more foolish to chase what may be a figment, or to assume that our planet has no secrets left?

Last year, three men calling themselves the Booth Richardson Tiger Team held a press conference on the eve of Threatened Species Day—which Australia commemorates on the day the Hobart Zoo thylacine died—to announce new video footage and images that they said showed the animal. They’d set up cameras after Greg Booth, a woodcutter and a former tiger nonbeliever, said that while walking in the bush two years earlier he had spotted a thylacine only three metres away, close enough to see the pouch. The videos were shot from a distance, and grainy, but right away they prompted headlines, from National Geographic to the New York Post. By the time I arrived in Tasmania, this spring, the team had gone to ground. When I reached Greg’s father by phone, he told me that their lawyer had forbidden them from talking to anyone, because they were seeking a buyer for their recording.

One of Tasmania’s most prominent tiger-hunting groups, the Thylacine Research Unit, or T.R.U., looked at the images and pronounced the animal a quoll, a marsupial carnivore that looks vaguely like a weasel. T.R.U., whose logo is a question mark with tiger stripes, has its own Web series and has been featured on Animal Planet. “Every other group is believers, and we’re skeptics, so we’re heretics,” Bill Flowers, one of the group’s three members, told me one day in a café in Devonport, on the northern coast. Since Flowers began investigating thylacine sightings, he has been reading about false memories, false confessions, and the psychology of perception—examples, he told me, of the way “the mind fills in gaps” that reality leaves open. He talked about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in court cases, and pointed out that many people, after spotting a strange animal, will look it up and retroactively decide that it was a thylacine, creating what he calls a “contaminated memory.”

It isn’t unusual for an interest in thylacines to lead back to the psychology of the humans who see them. “Your brain will justify your investment by defending it,” Nick Mooney, a Tasmanian wildlife expert, told me. I met Mooney, who is sixty-four, in his kitchen, which was filled with drying walnuts and fresh-picked apples. In 1982, he was studying raptors and other predators for the state department of wildlife when a colleague, Hans Naarding, reported that he’d seen a thylacine. The department had just been involved in the World Wildlife Fund search, which had found no hard proof but, as the official report, by the wildlife scientist Steve Smith, put it, “some cause for hope.” Naarding’s sighting was initially kept secret, a fact that still provides grist for conspiracy theorists. Mooney led the investigation, which took fifteen months; he tried to keep out the nosy public by saying that he was studying eagles.

The search again turned up no concrete evidence, but, from 1982 until 2009, when Mooney retired, he became the point person for tiger sightings. The department developed a special form for recording them, noting the weather, the light source, the distance away, the duration of the sighting, the altitude, and so on. Mooney also recorded his assessment of reliability. Some sightings were obvious hoaxes: a German tourist who took a picture of a historical photo; a man who said that he’d got indisputable proof but, whoops, the camera lurched out of his car and fell into a deep cave (he turned out to be trying to stop a nearby logging project); people who painted stripes on greyhounds. Mooney noticed that people who had repeat sightings also tended to prospect for gold, reflecting an inclination toward optimism that he dubbed Lasseter syndrome, for a mythical gold deposit in central Australia. One man gave Mooney a diary in which he had recorded the hundred or so tigers he believed he’d seen over the years. The first sighting was by far the most credible. Eventually, though, the man would “see sightings in piles of wood on the back lawn while everybody else was having a barbecue,” Mooney said. “What we’re talking about here is the path to obsession. I know people who’ve bankrupted themselves and their family . . . wrecked their life almost, chasing this dream.”

But there were always stories that Mooney couldn’t dismiss. The most compelling came from people who had little or no prior knowledge of the thylacine, and yet described, just as old-timers had, an awkward gait and a thick, stiff tail that seemed fused to the spine. There were also the separate groups of people who saw the same thing at the same time. He often had people bring him to the scene, and then would reënact the sighting with a dog, taking his own measurements to test the accuracy of people’s perceptions, their judgment of distance and time.

In the media, Mooney is regularly consulted for his opinion on new sightings or the species’ likelihood of survival. (Extremely low, he says.) But he won’t answer the question everyone wants answered. Flowers told me, “We ponder very often, does Nick believe or does he not?” Mooney’s refusal to be definitive angers those who accuse him of perpetrating a government coverup of a relict population and also those who think he’s encouraging nonsense by refusing to admit a dispiriting but obvious reality. Mooney thinks these views represent a thorough misunderstanding of how much we actually know about our world. “I don’t see the need to see an absolute when I don’t see an absolute,” he told me. “Life is far more complicated than people want it to be.” In his eyes, the ongoing mystery of the thylacine isn’t really about the animal at all. It’s about us.

To the outside world, Tasmania has long been a place of wishful thinking. For centuries, legends circulated of a vast unknown southern continent, Terra Australis Incognita, which was often said to be a land of riches so great that, as one writer put it, “the scraps from this table would be sufficient to maintain the power, dominion, and sovereignty of Britain.”

This is the dream that the explorer Abel Tasman was chasing when he sailed east from Mauritius on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, in 1642. (Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, had become a popular stopover for Dutch sailors, who restocked their larders with a large and easily hunted bird that lived there, the dodo.) Almost seven weeks later, his crew sighted land, which they took for part of a continent, never discovering that it was an island. Onshore, they initially met no people, although they heard music in the forest and saw widely spaced notches carved into trees, which led Tasman to speculate, in his published journal, that giants lived there—a notion that may have inspired Jonathan Swift’s Brobdingnagians. Tasman also wrote that a search party “saw the footing of wild Beasts having Claws like a Tyger.”

A century and a half later, the first shipload of convicts and settlers arrived. They didn’t know what creature—later named for the devil they feared it to be—made the screams they heard in the night. When, a few months after the establishment of a settlement at Hobart, some convicts caught sight of a large striped animal in the forest, it seemed another symbol of this strange and intimidating land. “I make no doubt but here are many wild animals which we have not seen,” a chaplain wrote. They encountered creatures like the platypus, an animal so bizarre—venomous, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, with the furry body of an otter but egg-laying—that George Shaw, the author of “The Naturalist’s Miscellany,” believed it to be a crude hoax. From the beginning, the thylacine’s common names—zebra wolf, tiger wolf, opossum-hyena, Tasmanian dingo—marked it as another chimera, too incongruous to understand on its own terms.

Three years after the colony’s founding, Tasmania’s surveyor-general wrote a scientific description that was read before the Linnean Society, in London: “Eyes large and full, black, with a nictant membrane, which gives the animal a savage and malicious appearance.” More harsh descriptions followed, from the eighteen-thirties through the nineteen-sixties: “These animals are savage, cowardly, and treacherous”; “badly formed and ungainly and therefore very primitive”; “marsupial quadrupeds are all characterized by a low degree of intelligence”; “belongs to a race of natural born idiots”; “an unproportioned experiment of nature quite unfitted to take its place in competition with the more highly-developed forms of animal life in the world today.” The thylacine was stupid and backward and also, somehow, a terrifying menace to the new society, which blamed it for killing tens of thousands of sheep—an absurd inflation—and sucking its victims’ blood like a vampire.

This abuse was part of a larger prejudice against marsupials that is sometimes called placental chauvinism. The science historian Adrian Desmond wrote that “civilized Europe, for its part, was quite content to view Australia as a faunal backwater, a kind of palaeontological penal colony.” As Europeans spread throughout Australia, killing native animals and displacing them with their preferred species, their assessments of marsupials were as unflattering as their racist dismissals of the people they were also killing and displacing.

Aboriginal Tasmanians, who had lived on the land for roughly thirty-five thousand years, were dying in large numbers, succumbing to new diseases introduced from Europe and attacks by colonists who wanted to raise livestock on the open land where they, and the thylacine, hunted. In 1830, just twenty-seven years after colonization, Tasmania’s lieutenant-governor called on the military, and every able-bodied male, to join a human chain that would stretch across the settled areas of the island and sweep the native people into exile. The operation, which used up more than half the colony’s annual budget, became known as the Black Line, for the people it targeted. That same year, a wool venture in the northwest offered the first bounties for dead thylacines, and the government of the island began offering them for living Aboriginal people—later to be amended to include the dead as well.

By 1869, it was believed that only two Aboriginal Tasmanians, a man named William Lanne, known as King Billy, and a woman named Truganini, survived. Scientists suddenly became obsessed with these “last” individuals. After Lanne died, a Hobart physician named William Crowther stole his skull and replaced it with one that he took from a white body. Lanne’s feet and hands were also removed; the historian Lyndall Ryan contends that other parts of his body, as well as a tobacco pouch made from his skin, ended up in the possession of other Hobart residents. There was a public outcry at the “unseemly” acts, but Crowther was soon elected to the legislature and later served as Tasmania’s premier.

In 1871, two years after Lanne’s death, the curator of the Australian Museum, in Sydney, wrote to his counterparts in Tasmania with a warning: “Let us therefore advise our friends to gather their specimens in time, or it may come to pass when the last Thylacine dies the scientific men across Bass’s Straits will contest as fiercely for its body as they did for that last aboriginal man not long ago.” Truganini, who died in 1876, professed her fear of a similar fate. Thanks to a guard who kept watch over her body, she was successfully buried. Eventually, however, her bones were exhumed and displayed at the Tasmanian Museum, along with taxidermied thylacines.

In fact, Lanne and Truganini were not the last Aboriginal Tasmanians. Descendants of the island’s first people lived on, mostly on the islands of the northern coast, where Aboriginal women had had children with white sealers; today, though the numbers are contested, some twenty-three thousand people in Tasmania identify as Aboriginal. For decades, they had to fight against the widespread belief that they no longer existed. “It is still much easier for white Tasmanians to regard Tasmanian Aborigines as a dead people rather than confront the problems of an existing community of Aborigines who are victims of a conscious policy of genocide,” Ryan has written. In 2016, the Tasmanian government, by constitutional amendment, recognized Aboriginal Tasmanians as the original owners of the island and its waters. As of this writing, the Encyclopædia Britannica defines them as extinct.

The politics and the emotions may have changed, but the thylacine still serves as a proxy for other debates. In March, in the tiny town of Pipers Brook, a group of Tasmanian landowners gathered over tea and quartered sandwiches to learn about how to support native animals on their properties. During the past two hundred years, more mammals have gone extinct in Australia than anywhere else in the world; Tasmania, once connected to the continent by a land bridge, has served as a last refuge for animals that are already extinct or endangered on the mainland. In Pipers Brook, the group was shown a picture of a thylacine, accompanied by an acknowledgment of grim responsibility. “A lot of what we do has the soul of the thylacine behind it,” David Pemberton, the program manager of the state’s Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, said. The devil, Tasmania’s other iconic species, is suffering from a contagious and fatal facial cancer that essentially clones itself when the devils bite one another’s faces. Pemberton has calculated that the combined weight of the tumors, most of which are genetically a single organism, now exceeds that of a blue whale.

As the group toured an enclosure for a devil-breeding program, a man named John W. Harders told me that the possibility of the thylacine’s survival had become a matter of pure belief, like whether there is life after death. Other participants said that they couldn’t help but feel some optimism, despite their rational doubt. “There’s so much despair in terms of conservation these days,” a botanist named Nicky Meeson said. “It would provide that little bit of hope that nature is resilient, that it could come back.”

But some people erupted in frustration at the mention of the tiger. “We killed them off a hundred years ago and now, belatedly, we’re proud of the thylacine!” Anna Povey, who works in land conservation, nearly shouted. She wanted to know why the government fetishizes the tiger’s image when other animals, such as the eastern quoll—cute, fluffy, definitely alive, and definitely endangered—could still make use of the attention. I couldn’t help thinking of all the purported thylacine videos that are dismissed as “just” a quoll. “It does piss us off!” Povey said. “It’s about time to appreciate the things we have, Australia, my God! We still treat this place as if it was the time of the thylacines—as if it was a frontier and we can carry on taking over.”

In the nineteen-seventies, Bob Brown, later a leader of the Australian Greens, a political party, spent two years as a member of a thylacine search team. He told me that although he’d like to think the fascination with thylacines is motivated by remorse and a desire for restitution, people’s guilt doesn’t seem to be reflected in the policies that they actually support. Logging and mining are major industries in Tasmania, and land clearing is rampant; even the forest where Naarding saw his tiger is gone. Throughout Australia, the dire extinction rate is expected to worsen. It is a problem of the human psyche, Brown said, that we seem to get interested in animals only as they slide toward oblivion.

While living Aboriginal Tasmanians were conveniently forgotten, the thylacine underwent an opposite, if equally opportune, transformation. To people convinced of its survival, the animal once derided as clumsy and primitive became almost supernaturally elusive, with heightened senses that allow it to avoid detection. “This is one hell of an animal,” Col Bailey, who is writing his fourth book about the thylacine, and claims to have seen one in 1995, told me. He has a simple explanation for why the tiger hasn’t been found: “Because it doesn’t want to be.”

Last year, the thylacine’s genome was successfully sequenced from a tiny, wrinkled joey, preserved in alcohol for decades. It was a breakthrough in a long-standing project to revive the species through cloning, an ecological do-over that has been suggested for species from the white rhino to the woolly mammoth. Some critics consider cloning another act of denial in a long line of them—denying even the finality of extinction.

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Of all the disagreements among tiger seekers, the most contentious is this: Do they, could they possibly, still live on the Australian mainland? Although thylacines are now synonymous with Tasmania, they lived as far north as New Guinea, and were once found all across Australia. Carbon dating suggests that they have been extinct on the mainland for around three thousand years. That would be a very long time for a large animal to live without leaving definitive traces of its existence. And yet some Aboriginal stories place the tiger closer to the present, and mainland believers contend that there have been many more sightings—by one count, around five thousand—reported on the mainland than in Tasmania.

Thylacine lore in western Australia is so extensive that the animal has its own local name, the Nannup tiger. A point of particular debate is the age of a thylacine carcass found in a cave on the Nullarbor Plain in 1966, so fresh that it still had an intact tongue, eyeball, and striped fur. Carbon dating indicated that it was in the cave for perhaps four thousand years, essentially mummified by the dry air, but believers argue that the dating was faulty and the animal was only recently dead.

To many Tasmanian enthusiasts, mainland sightings are a frustrating embarrassment that threatens to undermine their credibility; they can be as scathing about mainland theorists as total nonbelievers are about them. “Every time a witness on the mainland says, ‘I found a tiger!,’ it looks like they filmed it with a potato and it’s a fox or a dog,” Mike Williams, the panther researcher, told me. He pointed out that sarcoptic mange, a skin disease caused by infected mite bites, is widespread in Australian animals, and can make tails look stiff and fur look stripy.

Last year, researchers at James Cook University, in Queensland, announced that they would begin looking for the thylacine in a remote tropical region on Cape York Peninsula and elsewhere in Far North Queensland, at the northeastern tip of Australia, about as far from Tasmania as you can get and still be in the country. The search, using five hundred and eighty cameras capable of taking twenty thousand photos each, was prompted by sightings from two reputable observers, an experienced outdoorsman and a former park ranger, both of whom believed that they had spotted the animal in the nineteen-eighties but had, in the intervening years, been too embarrassed to tell anyone. “It’s important for scientists to have an open mind,” Sandra Abell, the lead researcher at J.C.U., told me as the hunt was beginning. “Anything’s possible.”

In Adelaide, I met up with Neil Waters, a professional horticulturist, who, on Facebook, started the Thylacine Awareness Group, for believers in mainland tigers. Waters, who was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “May the Stripes Be with You,” told me that he has “a bit more faith in the human condition” than to think that so many people are all deluded or lying. “Narrow-minded approach to life, I call it,” he said. He told me that he also felt a certain ecological responsibility, because his ancestors “were the first white trash to get off a ship, so we’ve been destroying this place for a long time.” His family had been woodcutters, and, for him, becoming a horticulturist was a kind of karmic reparation.

In the dry hills outside the city, we stopped in an area called, appropriately or not, Humbug Scrub, and then picked up Mark Taylor, a musician and a thylacine enthusiast who lived nearby. A few months earlier, Taylor said, his son-in-law and grandson had seen what they described as a dog that hopped like a kangaroo, and Taylor was yearning for a sighting of his own. “It’s becoming one of the bigger things in my life,” he said. Anytime we were near dense brush, he would get animated, saying, “There could be a thylacine in there right now and we’d never know!” Once, just as he said this, there was movement on a distant hillside and he jumped, only to realize that it was a group of kangaroos. The world felt overripe with possibility.

Four weeks earlier, Waters had left a road-killed kangaroo next to a camera in a place where he had found a lot of mysterious scat containing bones. “Shitloads of shit!” he exulted. Now he and Taylor were going to find out what glimpses of the forest’s private history the camera had recorded. As they walked, Taylor stopped to gather scat samples for a collection that he keeps in his bait freezer for DNA analysis. “My missus hates it,” he said.

The kangaroo was gone, except for some rank fur and a bit of backbone. Waters retrieved the camera from the tree to which he’d strapped it. Taylor was bouncing again. “This is when we hope,” he said. Back at the car, we crouched by the open trunk as Waters removed the memory card and inserted it into a laptop. We watched in beautiful clarity as a fox, and then a goshawk, and then a kookaburra fed on the slowly deflating body of the kangaroo. Waters laughed and cursed, but it was clear that no amount of disappointment would dampen his belief. “It’s a fucking big country,” he said. “There’s a lot of needles in that haystack.”

I thought of something Bill Flowers, of T.R.U., told me about the first time he set up camera traps in a Tasmanian reserve called Savage River. In terms of the island, where about half the land is protected, the reserve is relatively small. But the forested hills stretched as far as he could see. He began to consider the island not as it appears on maps—small, contained, all explored and charted—but as it would appear to an animal the size of a Labrador, looking for a place to hide. Suddenly, Tasmania seemed big indeed. “You go out and have a look and you start going from skeptic to agnostic very quickly,” he said. I heard something similar from many searchers. “It’s all very well and good to look at Google Earth and say, la la la, it’s not possible for something to be not seen,” Chris Tangey, who interviewed two hundred witnesses as part of his own search, in the late nineteen-seventies, said. “But then you go to those places . . .” He trailed off, sounding wistful.

For some people, contemplating the possibility of the thylacine’s survival seems to make the world feel bigger and wilder and more unpredictable, and humans smaller and less significant. On a planet reeling from the alarming consequences of human activity, it’s comforting to think that our mistakes may not be final, that nature is not wholly stripped of its capacity for surprise. “It puts us in our place a little bit,” a mainland searcher named David Dickinson told me. “We’re not all-knowing.”

After dodos disappeared from Mauritius, in the seventeenth century, naturalists came to believe that the bird had only been a legend. There were drawings and records, sure, but where had it suddenly gone? Extinction was a new and much derided idea. Even Thomas Jefferson refused to believe in it for many years—how could the perfection of nature, of creation, allow such a thing? The evidence of departed species mounted until it was undeniable—dinosaur and mastodon bones were pretty difficult to account for—but it took longer to understand that humans, through their own actions, might be able to overwhelm the abundance of nature and wipe out whole species. That’s part of why the Tasmanian tiger became famous in the first place. By the time it disappeared—right on the heels of passenger pigeons, which not long before had blocked out the sun with the immensity of their flocks—we were just beginning to confront the terrible magnitude of our destructive power.

We’re still just beginning. ♦

Reporting for this piece was facilitated by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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