A Whistleblower Went Public About Cambridge Analytica And Facebook To 'Make Amends'

His story has set off bombshell news reports on two continents.

Former Cambridge Analytica contractor Christoper Wylie is finally telling his story.

The 28-year-old Canadian may have played a critical role in influencing the 2016 election, and now he's risking lawsuits by breaking a non-disclosure agreement to explain how he helped use Facebook data to influence voters. Wylie was a founding member of the data analysis firm known as Cambridge Analytica and worked with Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to President Donald Trump, along with Republican megadonor Robert Mercer, to harvest Facebook data from Americans that would be used to influence their vote. 

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"I haven't talked about this to anyone," Wylie told a reporter from The Guardian in May of 2017.  "It's insane...The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans."

A trove of emails, bank records and documents that Wylie has turned over to reporters from The Guardian, the Observer and The New York Times shows how Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook data from millions of users and used it to predict and change how people voted. 

"We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people's profiles," Wylie told the Observer. "And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on."

Revelations from Wylie's whistleblowing has set off a firestorm in the United States and the U.K., where government agencies are now trying to come to grips with what Cambridge Analytica allegedly did. Wylie says that he built a "psychological warfare" tool for U.S. elections. He also says he helped Cambridge Analytica play a role in the so-called Brexit vote. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is also looking into the data firm's role in the 2016 election.

Cambridge Analytica released a statement Monday rebutting many of Wylie's claims, including his assertion that the firm "exploited" Facebook data (it says it deleted the data in question after questions of legality surfaced) and its involvement in the Brexit vote.

Now, as parliamentary members in the U.K. are questioning Facebook employees and Rep. Adam Schiff is calling for Wylie to appear before the House Intelligence Committee as part of the "ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election."

The New York Times reports that the technique Cambridge Analytica used was developed at Cambridge University by a team of data scientists that "claimed it could reveal more about a person than even their parents or romantic partners knew." Alexander Kogan, one of the researchers hired by Cambridge Analytica, told Facebook that the data was being used for academic purposes. The data was obtained by paying Facebook users a small fee to take a personality quiz that asked them to download an application which scraped personal data — and data about their Facebook friends — from their profiles. 

Facebook reportedly did not attempt to verify how the data was being used and, in turn, did little to stop the researchers from turning the data over to a third party: Cambridge Analytica. The New York Times reporters who reviewed the documents and data Cambridge Analytica collected say they still possess "most or all of the trove."

This avalanche of news and insights about the election was all set off by Wylie's decision to come forward as a source for stories across the globe. On Wednesday afternoon, Channel 4 News in London released a series of undercover videos that seems to show Cambridge Analytica executives saying they could entrap politicians with bribes and Ukrainian sex workers. Alexander Nix, the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, says the company "campaigns in elections across the world."

A friend described Cambridge Analytica as Wylie's Frankenstein, to The Guardian, adding that, "He created it. It's his data Frankenmonster. And now he's trying to put it right."

Wylie himself has expressed a deep sense of regret for the role he played in influencing the election. Facebook initially denied details of a data breach or pushed back on the narrative that Facebook users' data was used by an outside firm to influence the election. But as the number of stories in the press grew, Facebook began shifting the blame towards Kogan, who it says "did not follow the data agreements." 

Facebook also suspended Wylie from the social platform on Monday, noting that he himself had said that he "exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people's profiles."

"I feel a sense of regret every day when I see where they have helped take our world," Wylie said in a statement last week. "I need to make amends, and that's why I'm coming forward."

Cover image via Shutterstock / 13_Phunkod.

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