Yesterday’s bombshell article in the Guardian about the way that Cambridge Analytica was able to extract tens of millions of Facebook users’ data without their consent was preceded by plenty of damage control on Facebook’s part: they repeatedly threatened to sue news outlets if they reported on the story and fired the whistleblower who came forward with the story.
It’s been more than a year since The Intercept reported that Cambridge Analytica paid mechanical turks to take a personality quiz, and then exploited a Facebook loophole to extract the personal information of 30,000,000 users who were Facebook friends with the people who filled in the quiz.
What’s new here is that a whistleblower has come forward with the backstory of the hack, and more details, including a revised estimate of the number of user records Cambridge Analytica breached: 50,000,000.
The whistleblower is a young Canadian data-scientist named Christopher Wylie who worked for Canada’s Liberal Party and the UK Liberal Democrats before being recruited into Cambridge Analytica; Wylie then went to work for Facebook, who have just suspended him for talking to the press about Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of Facebook data and Facebook’s complicity in that abuse.
Wylie had been working on a PhD on fashion trend forecasting when he encountered the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, and Steve Bannon, who charmed Wylie with his ability to discourse over ideology; his ability to draw parallels between intersectional feminism and the grievance politics of Trump’s white racist base; and his Breitbartian philosophy that “politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture” — in other words, fashion forecasting as a key component of political campaigning.
Hilariously, Wylie says he helped trick Bannon into hiring the company by opening a fake office in Cambridge, England, which they would relocate London employees to when Bannon came to visit, to convince Bannon that they had the intellectual heft to which Bannon aspires. Wylie said that Bannon especially valued input from queer people because he saw them as cultural leaders (he ascribes Bannon’s affinity for Milo Yiannopoulos to this belief).
Wylie refutes many of the claims made about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica about which information they had, when they had it, and how they used it, making them out to be liars — at a key moment in which the companies and their industries are coming under close political scrutiny and public disrepute (if politics are downstream from culture, they’re in serious trouble).
And through it all, Wylie and I, plus a handful of editors and a small, international group of academics and researchers, have known that – at least in 2014 – that certainly wasn’t the case, because Wylie has the paper trail. In our first phone call, he told me he had the receipts, invoices, emails, legal letters – records that showed how, between June and August 2014, the profiles of more than 50 million Facebook users had been harvested. Most damning of all, he had a letter from Facebook’s own lawyers admitting that Cambridge Analytica had acquired the data illegitimately.
Going public involves an enormous amount of risk. Wylie is breaking a non-disclosure agreement and risks being sued. He is breaking the confidence of Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer.
It’s taken a rollercoaster of a year to help get Wylie to a place where it’s possible for him to finally come forward. A year in which Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of investigations on both sides of the Atlantic – Robert Mueller’s in the US, and separate inquiries by the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK, both triggered in February 2017, after the Observer’s first article in this investigation.
It has been a year, too, in which Wylie has been trying his best to rewind – to undo events that he set in motion. Earlier this month, he submitted a dossier of evidence to the Information Commissioner’s Office and the National Crime Agency’s cybercrime unit. He is now in a position to go on the record: the data nerd who came in from the cold.
You can find out what data Cambridge Analytica has on you; as you read this, keep in mind that much of the reputed efficacy of Cambridge Analytica comes from their own marketing, and even if it’s true, remember that the efficacy of attentional weapons regresses to the mean.
The Cambridge Analytica Files [Carole Cadwalladr/The Guardian]
Facebook suspends former Cambridge Analytica contractor [Donie O’Sullivan and Sherisse Pham/CNN]
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