A whistleblower whose allegations about data misuse have triggered a reputational crisis for Facebook and exposed the tactics of political influence company Cambridge Analytica testified before a British parliamentary inquiry on March 27. He claimed election interference in Nigeria and described the suspicious death of his predecessor, who allegedly played a role in elections in Kenya.
Christopher Wylie appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) Committee, a parliamentary group that was investigating the phenomenon of “fake news” as well as the potential misuse of data online before a journalistic investigation by The Observer broke on March 18.
On March 28, the British parliament published several of the documents provided by Wylie.
Wylie alleges data from 50 million Facebook users could have been acquired by Cambridge Analytica in breach of Facebook privacy rules. This data was then used to develop software that allowed Donald J. Trump’s campaign to precisely target and sway voters in the 2016 election.
A former Cambridge Analytica employee, Wylie was called to give evidence to the committee whose members have called into question earlier testimony from the company. Committee chairman Damian Collins, a Conservative, also said he still wanted Mark Zuckerberg to come to give evidence. Earlier, Zuckerberg said he wouldn’t appear in front of MPs but would send one his senior executives, Chris Cox, in his place after the Easter parliamentary break.
Highlights of Wylie’s testimony
On the suspicious death of his predecessor, Dan Muresan, in 2012:
- “Cambridge Analytica was working with Kenyan politicians … but … in a lot of African countries if a deal goes wrong you pay for it.”
- “Dan [Muresan] was my predecessor … what I heard was that he was working on some kind of deal of some sort – I’m not sure what.”
- “The deal went sour.”
- “People suspected he was poisoned in his hotel room. I also heard that the police had got bribed not to enter the hotel room for 24 hours.”
- “That is what I was told – I was not there so I cannot speak to the veracity of it.” (Corrected: adding “cannot”.)
On Nigeria’s 2015 presidential election, Wylie alleged that another company, AggregateIQ (AIQ), was linked to Cambridge Analytica and used questionable means to try to dissuade voters from backing Nigeria’s now-president, Muhammadu Buhari. Wylie also said AIQ received funds from the United Kingdom’s Vote Leave campaign to exit the European Union while working on the Nigeria campaign:
- “The Nigerian project in 2015 … where the company utilised services of an Israeli private intelligence firm. That firm is Black Cube.” Separately, Black Cube is alleged to have been hired by disgraced media mogul Harvey Weinstein to obstruct reports accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct.
- “Black Cube on the Nigeria project was engaged to hack the now-president Buhari to get access to his medical records and private emails.”
- “AIQ worked on that project. AIQ was handed material in Nigeria from Cambridge Analytica to distribute online.”
- “That’s distribution of kompromat and of incredibly threatening and violent video content.”
- “The videos that AIQ distributed in Nigeria with the sole intent of intimidating voters included content where people were being dismembered, where people were having their throats cut and bled to death in a ditch, they were being burned alive.”
- “There were incredibly anti-Islamic and threatening messages portraying Muslims as violent.”
- “You’ve got AggregateIQ, which received 40 per cent of Vote Leave’s spending, also working on projects that involved hacked material and kompromat and distributing violent videos of people being bled to death to intimidate voters. This is the company that played an important pivotal role in politics here.”
- “(It) makes me so angry because a lot of people supported Leave … I absolutely believe the law was broken.”
AIQ states on its website that it “has always been 100 percent Canadian owned and operated,” “has never been and is not a part of Cambridge Analytica or SCL,” “has never entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytica,” ever employed Wylie, and has “never knowingly been involved in any illegal activity.”
On why he had decided to blow the whistle on Cambridge Analytica:
“A lot of people have asked me why has it taken so long; what they don’t see is I have been working for The Guardian for a year. So what you are seeing is the apex of that.”
“Cambridge Analytica didn’t care if what they were doing was illegal … they are a modern day example of what colonialism looks like.”
On the relationship between Cambridge Analytica and Cambridge University:
“We definitely talked to some of the more senior professors but nothing formal with the university itself … [it was] all done with professor to professor.”
On Cambridge Analytica’s methods:
“This is a company that goes out and tries to illicitly acquire live browsing data of everyone in an entire country … This is a company which sends videos of people being murdered to try and intimidate people into voting.”
On Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix’s alleged interactions with data mining company Palantir: “There was not an official contract between Palantir and Cambridge Analytica but there were Palantir staff that would come into the office and work on the data.”
Palantir initially denied the allegations but later acknowledged that one of its employees had worked with Cambridge Analytica “in an entirely personal capacity”. See WikiTribune’s project.
In a statement to WikiTribune, Black Cube strongly denied the allegations Wylie gave in his testimony. “We categorically declare that neither Black Cube, nor any of its affiliates and subsidiaries, have ever worked for, or engaged with, SCL, Cambridge Analytica, or any of their affiliates and subsidiaries,” said the company. “Black Cube has never operated in Nigeria nor has it worked on any project connected to Nigeria, and none of its employees have ever set foot in Nigeria.”
WikiTribune contacted Palantir but hasn’t received a reply.
Cambridge Analytica tweeted several times during Wylie’s testimony, including the following:
Christopher Wylie was a part-time contractor who left in July 2014 and has no direct knowledge of our work or practices since that date.
CA was sad to see Christopher Wylie leave in July 2014 after 11 months with the company; he was very gifted. We took legal action purely to stop him from pitching identical services to our own clients.
More WikiTribune reporting on this issue:
- Facebook under investigation, says US consumer protection agency
- Zuckerberg promises changes for ‘breach of trust’ on Facebook
- European Union forces pace on protection of individual data on the internet