Catch Up on our Report: The Most Important Whistleblower Since Snowden: The Mind Behind Cambridge Analytica

Christopher Wylie, the man behind Facebook data leak held a talk at the Frontline Club on Tuesday 21st March to discuss how Cambridge Analytica, a firm he worked for, breached the data of 50 million Facebook users to swing public opinion.

The discussion was a Frontline / Byline collaboration and chaired by the CEO Peter Jukes.

He began by setting out the aim of the conversation which was to tell the story behind the story and how the Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr found Wylie and persuaded him to speak out.

Wylie said:

“She found me on the recesses of the internet. The first time I talked to her on the phone it was for four hours and that says a lot about Carole, that she can make somebody she’s not met before so comfortable that they are willing to chat for long hours on a very complex story.”

Describing the situation Wylie found himself in while speaking out against Cambridge Analytica, he recalled the many legal threats to silence him. However through Cadwalladr he found lawyers like Tamsin Allen, who was also in the audience, to fight for his right to speak out against misuse of Facebook’s data.

He added:

“There are a lot of people behind the story and it’s because of Carole’s perseverance that this was made possible. I started talking to her in May last year and in her investigation she didn’t just speak to me but to 15 other people, collecting documents and being methodical and patient and this is why this story has been made possible.”

Jukes then went on to ask Wylie at what point did he decide it was time to speak up against the data harvesting technologies of Cambridge Analytica to influence voters. Wylie replied that he came out originally as the anonymous source who was cited in Cadwalladr’s article in May last year which detailed the global operations of Cambridge Analytica involving big data.

He said:

“It (the article) was one of the most read things in The Guardian because it was written in a very human manner and that made it an accessible story, which is a very powerful tool. Storytelling is one of the only cross-cultural rituals people have for remembering and understanding something.”

He added:

“The, discussion about the role of technology in politics and society should not just be the exclusive domain of technical people…because everyone is on social media because everyone uses a computer, so this discussion needs to expand.”

Wylie further stated that he had to describe to Cadwalladr, and other journalists she worked with, the technical terms such as relational database, sequels, algorithm, machine learning and neural network and we need more voices such as hers who can question it. Right now the conversation around technology is dominated by people from within the field of technology and it intimidates others.

Talking about the headlines dominating the media in the past couple of days around the data leak of the millions of Facebook accounts Wylie explained:

“Facebook makes me out be the suspect, some kind of nefarious person, but what they are not saying is that I am the one who was working proactively with the information commissioner’s office, I was the one who brought this to the British authorities. I am the person who has been proactively, openly and transparently working with the British authorities and that’s why ICO can get a warrant and search Cambridge Analytica tomorrow…this idea that I am somehow a suspect in all of this is really frustrating because I have been working hand in hand with the information commissioner for months now.”

Expressing his frustration at the sidelining of the issues around the inner workings of Cambridge Analytica Wylie added:

“This has partly been a distraction because I came forward to talk about Cambridge Analytica and my experience, and to take my share of responsibility and blame for being the research director when Cambridge Analytica was being set up. I feel like after we reached out to Facebook, my thinking was that we can work with them, I can own up to this and this company can face the scrutiny that it deserves and people can be notified of what’s been happening. The frustrating thing for me is that this story has spiralled into Facebook’s bizarre reaction to it rather than what the original story was meant to be about.”

In the Q&A session at the club which has a history of supporting whistleblowers a member of the audience asked about Donald Trump’s election win  in 2016, to which Wylie explained:

“My ears perked-up when I heard phrases like ‘we’ll build the wall’, ‘drain the swamp’ ‘the deep state’ because these were all the narratives that had come out from the research we were doing.”

A number of other questions followed in the remaining 30 minutes of the discussion with Wylie where he briefly touched upon the relationship between building datasets and algorithms along with possible use of this breached data by the Russians and why he felt this is the right time for him to lift the lid on Cambridge Analytica.