Christopher Wylie: How Cambridge Analytica's whistleblower became Facebook's unlikely enemy

In one explosive moment last weekend, Wylie became the enemy of one of the tech industry's most powerful and lucrative companies. The former student of fashion trends has delivered revelations that have triggered government investigations on both sides of the Atlantic

Craig Timberg,Karla Adam
Saturday 24 March 2018 14:57 GMT
Cambridge Analytica: Chris Wylie tells Channel 4 News data for 50 million Facebook profiles was obtained

The crisis ravaging Facebook started when a young researcher, regretful over his role in turning data on an estimated tens of millions of US voters into a high-tech political persuasion machine, decided to come forward with his story. And he imagined that Facebook, whose user profiles were part of that effort, could be a partner in helping to exhume this painful truth and perhaps embrace some changes to its privacy policy.

But instead of a joint announcement, Christopher Wylie awoke early last Saturday in London, where he lives, to the news that Facebook had published a blog post announcing the suspensions of him, his former employer and one other person for allegedly mishandling Facebook data in an incident that happened in 2014 and had been known to Facebook for more than a year.

That explosive moment last weekend turned Wylie, 28, into an unlikely foil to one of the tech industry’s most powerful and lucrative companies. The onetime student of fashion trends with pink hair and a stubborn streak has delivered revelations that have triggered government investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, sent Facebook’s stock price plunging and pushed long-simmering privacy concerns to a boil.

“I didn’t set out to attack Facebook. Facebook has just been incredibly uncooperative,” Wylie said. “It hasn’t respected the role of the media and scrutiny and embraced this scrutiny and worked to improve itself.”

What happened instead, he said, was an “own goal” by Facebook.

In hours of interviews with The Washington Post this week, Wylie traced his work for the data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica, his growing misgivings before he quit in 2014, and his shock and horror when the company’s most famous client, Donald Trump, won the presidency nearly two years later.

He also described previously unreported contact with Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, in spring 2015. (Lewandowski denied any contact.) And Wylie shared his suspicion – though unconfirmed – that data collected and used by Cambridge Analytica may have fallen into Russian hands.

But Wylie spoke with particular passion about his own feelings of guilt for helping to develop an advanced new form of political targeting that was used by people whose conservative politics are the opposite of his own.

Some say that Wylie is a flawed whistleblower, that he never should have helped collect data on tens of millions of Facebook users and should not have waited years to publicly reveal his misgivings about working for Cambridge Analytica. But he says he’s trying to make matters right by speaking out now.

“I literally left a ticking time bomb,” Wylie said in his lawyer’s London office. “I didn’t quite appreciate that I had done that. And then it blew up.”

Wylie, a Canadian citizen, moved to London in 2010 and started to work in 2013 for SCL Group, which he said conducted “information operations” around the world and also worked in campaigns, especially in African nations.

As research director, Wylie helped that company give birth to Cambridge Analytica as “an American brand” that would focus on US politics with at least $10m (£7m) from billionaire hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer. The Cambridge Analytica office was in the posh Mayfair neighbourhood, and the dozens of young workers – many of them contractors, a number of whom were from Eastern Europe – buzzed about with Apple laptops.

At the helm, said Wylie, was Mercer’s daughter Rebekah, who was president, and conservative strategist Steve Bannon, who was vice-president. Running day-to-day operations was a smooth-talking upper-crust Briton, Alexander Nix.

Nix did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. Cambridge Analytica suspended Nix on Tuesday after a television sting showed him on secret recordings talking about employing unethical tactics to win elections, including bribery and using sex workers for “honey pots”. Wylie said he helped set up the television station’s sting.

Wylie said that it was under Nix’s direction – but with the knowledge of Bannon and Rebekah Mercer – that Cambridge Analytica began an ambitious data-gathering programme that included tapping into the Facebook profiles of 50 million users through the use of a personality-testing app. The company did that with the help of a Russian American psychologist at Cambridge University, Aleksandr Kogan, who also made regular visits back to Russia, according to Wylie.

Wylie says he regrets his role in the gathering of data on US voters (Jake Naughton/Washington Post)

Wylie said he and others at Cambridge Analytica were initially sceptical of the power of this tactic for gathering data. But when the company approved $1,000 for Kogan to experiment with his app, he produced data on 1,000 people who downloaded it and roughly 160,000 of their friends – all in a matter of hours.

Cambridge Analytica next approved $10,000 for a second round of testing and was rewarded with nearly a million records, including names, home towns, dates of birth, religious affiliations, work and educational histories, and preferences, as expressed using the popular Facebook “like” button on many social media updates, news stories and other online posts.

They soon married that data with voter lists and commercial data broker information and discovered they had a remarkably precise portrait of a large swath of the American electorate.

Kogan’s app, called “thisisyourdigitallife” and portrayed as being for research purposes, gathered data on the 270,000 people who downloaded it and tens of millions of their Facebook friends. It was this data and others that Wylie later worried might have ended up in Russian hands.

“I’m not saying that we put it on a drive and posted it to Vladimir Putin on Number 1 Red Square,” Wylie said, referring to the Russian president’s official residence. But he said that he and others affiliated with Cambridge Analytica briefed Lukoil, a Russian oil company, on its research into American voters. He said Kogan also made regular visits to Russia but acknowledged that he did not know what Kogan did there.

Kogan has not replied to requests for comment. Kogan called the suggestions that he was a spy “just silly” in an email, seen by CNN, that he wrote to colleagues at Cambridge University. “If I am Russian spy, I am the world’s dumbest spy.”

For Wylie, a data scientist with an avid interest in politics and culture, the collection of Facebook and other data did not initially trouble him. The social media platform made such data grabs easy for app developers – though it began severely restricting them in 2015 – and Wylie saw it as a powerful way to study an entire nation on a scale at once broad and precise.

Combined with other data, Cambridge Analytica hoped to profile the entire American electorate – something it already had done in other countries – and determine what pitches would work best for each individual voter.

The project also appeared to excite its benefactors. One former Cambridge Analytica employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal corporate matters, described hearing Rebekah Mercer express over the phone excitement at the results of 2014 congressional midterms, when Republicans made significant gains to which Cambrige Analytica said it had contributed.

But Wylie and others clashed with Nix, whom he called a “bully”. Wylie also grew weary of the increasingly far-right tenor of the politics the researchers were helping to propel. They discovered and refined potent themes about keeping out immigrants, “draining the swamp” and restoring an earlier era of national greatness – as understood mainly to mean for white American men.

When Wylie told Nix at a London coffee shop in 2014 that he was going to leave at the end of the year, he heard a boast that at the time sounded ridiculous but, in retrospect, haunted him.

“Just you wait,” Nix told Wylie, according to his recollection. “You’re going to leave, but we’re going to be in the White House.”

But it was not clear to Wylie at that point who might lead such an eventual White House bid. In fact, Cambridge Analytica worked with Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, during the presidential primary before signing on with the Trump campaign.

Months after he and several other Cambridge Analytica employees quit the firm, they got a mysterious message from somebody purporting to represent the Trump Organisation. Wylie and others, unfamiliar with Trump’s brewing political ambitions, thought they might find themselves somehow involved in Trump’s “Apprentice” reality television show.

Wylie said he ended up speaking with Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, in conference calls in which Lewandowski reportedly described a forthcoming Trump run for president.

Lewandowski later met in person with several of Wylie’s former Cambridge Analytica colleagues at Trump Tower in spring 2015, Wylie said in an account backed by one of those people who did attend. But the plan to work for the campaign doing voter analysis fizzled, in large part because the mostly liberal former Cambridge Analytica employees didn’t want to wade back into conservative politics.

Zuckerberg was asked to explain how the data of tens of millions of the social media site’s users reached Cambridge Analytica (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Lewandowski said the campaign had been pitched by Cambridge Analytica but never hired them and had no recollection of meeting with any former employees. “I’ve never heard of those guys,” Lewandowski said of Wylie and the other former employees. “It didn’t happen.”

But the brief flirtation did have a concrete consequence. SCL Group threatened legal action against Wylie for supposedly violating a “noncompete” clause he signed before quitting. Wylie was confused – he had no idea that the company considered Trump a client or potential client – and began to suspect that he had been set up. To resolve the legal dispute, he signed a nondisclosure agreement that would later complicate his efforts to speak out about the work he had done for Cambridge Analytica.

Wylie’s sense of uneasiness about that work began building when he heard Trump, in 2016, start using themes that Cambridge Analytica had developed in 2014 about building walls and draining the swamp. More than most, Wylie knew the science behind why they might be effective. His discomfort grew when Bannon formally joined the Trump campaign in August 2016.

Election results on 8 November 2016, filled Wylie with a profound sense of dread. A friend who worked on the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and was familiar with Wylie’s previous work sent him a message saying, “What did you do?”

“Manipulating an election in a small developing country doesn’t have the same sort of ripple effect of electing Donald Trump into the White House,” Wylie said. “It hit home at the inauguration.” It is unclear how much Cambridge Analytica contributed to Trump’s win.

Soon after Trump’s inauguration, Wylie began talking with an Observer reporter, Carole Cadwalladr, who had been working on stories about Cambridge Analytica. He also retained an attorney, Tamsin Allen, and began working directly with Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office, which started an investigation into Cambridge Analytica.

Earlier this month, Wylie received a sharply worded letter from Facebook, which demanded access to his smartphone and computer. He refused, saying that he already had shared information with the British authorities and saw no reason to do so with a private company – especially one whose own activities might be called into question.

It was not Wylie’s first encounter with Facebook. The company had sent a letter in August 2016 saying that Kogan, the Cambridge researcher, should not have shared the data of Facebook users. Downloading names, home towns, work histories and “likes” of 50 million users was not against the rules – at least in 2014 – but Kogan should not have transferred the data to Cambridge Analytica, Facebook wrote. Facebook wanted the data destroyed.

Wylie said he complied with that request, though he does not know if Kogan or Cambridge Analytica did. (Cambridge Analytica has issued several statements in recent days denying any wrongdoing.)

Silicon Valley-based Facebook posted a blog on Friday announcing the suspension of Kogan, Wylie and the parent company of Cambridge Analytica.

When he was awakened by a call around 3am by a reporter, Wylie was furious at Facebook for acting unilaterally and accusing him of misdeeds when he had come forward to authorities. Days later, he still is.

Wylie’s career as Facebook critic quickly moved to a new level. Lawmakers in the United States and Europe began demanding that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg personally explain how the data of 50 million users reached a mysterious company with ties to Bannon, the Mercers and Trump. State attorneys general began investigating. So did the Federal Trade Commission over concerns that Facebook had violated a 2011 consent decree over privacy issues.

Alexander Nix in the company’s Fifth Avenue office. Wylie recalls Nix saying: ‘You’re going to leave, but we’re going to be in the White House’ (Joshua Bright /Washington Post)

When told that Wylie thought he had been mistreated by Facebook, the social media company responded that Cambridge Analytica and Kogan had agreed to an audit of their servers and systems. “Mr Wylie thus far has declined.” Facebook on Wednesday said it would conduct audits of thousands of apps in response to the “breach of trust” caused by Cambridge Analytica.

“Facebook is not the government. Facebook is not the state. I’m working with the legal authority,” Wylie said, referring to the Information Commissioner’s Office. “I’m not going to be bullied by Facebook.”

As for the broader issues – the privacy intrusions of the data collection, the manipulation of voters, the possible role in electing Trump, the possibility that Cambridge Analytica’s work might have reached Russians – Wylie feels remorse. Wylie says he wants to expose the machinations of data gathering for political purposes as fully as he’s able. He dreams of resuming his work as a data scientist some day. For now, he is something like a full-time whistleblower.

In an emotional moment on Tuesday night at the journalist’s Frontline Club, Wylie told a packed audience that his decision to step forward was about taking responsibility.

“If you’ve done something wrong, the first step is to try to own up and tell people about it,” he said. “I’m on my first step.”

William Booth in London, Elizabeth Dwoskin in Los Angeles and Michael Kranish in Washington contributed to this report

© Washington Post

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