OTTAWA – A Canadian whistleblower is at the center of an international scandal that saw a data-analytics firm help the Trump campaign capitalize politically from private Facebook information.
Reports by The New York Times and The Observer of London say U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign hired a data-analytics company that harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users.
The data expert who spoke out about controversy helped found the company behind the leak — he’s a 28-year-old Canadian named Christopher Wylie.
One of the reports says at age 17, Wylie worked in the office of Canada’s opposition leader, who at that time was then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion.
The report also says that when he was 18, he learned all about data while working for officials on former U.S. president Barack Obama’s campaign team, and later introduced one director to the Liberals.
A senior source with the Liberal party says Wylie last worked for the party less than a decade ago, before Justin Trudeau became leader, and was also previously involved in its youth commission.
The newspaper reports say the firm Cambridge Analytica exploited private social media activity to help allow the Trump campaign to better target voters by profiling their behaviour and personalities ahead of the U.S. election.
“I do feel responsible for it and it’s something that I regret,” Wylie says in a video interview posted on The Observer’s web page.
“It was a grossly unethical experiment because you are playing with an entire country, the psychology of an entire country, without their consent or awareness.”
Cambridge has denied wrongdoing and calls Wylie a disgruntled former employee. It acknowledged obtaining user data in violation of Facebook policies, but blamed a middleman contractor for the problem. The company said it never used the data and deleted it all once it learned of the infraction — an assertion contradicted by Wylie and now under investigation by Facebook.
On Saturday, Facebook continued to insist that the Cambridge data collection was not a “data breach” because “everyone involved gave their consent” to share their data. The purported research app followed Facebook’s existing privacy rules, no systems were surreptitiously infiltrated and no one stole passwords or sensitive information without permission. (To Facebook, the only real violation was the transfer of information collected for “research” to a third party such as Cambridge.)
Experts say that argument only makes sense if every user fully understands Facebook’s obscure privacy settings, which often default to maximal data sharing.
“It’s a disgusting abuse of privacy,” said Larry Ponemon, founder of the privacy research firm Ponemon Institute. “In general, most of these privacy settings are superficial,” he said. “Companies need to do more to make sure commitments are actually met.”
The reports say Cambridge Analytica also played a major role in the referendum that led to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
Another article published May 2017 by The Guardian quoted a source that connected Wylie to a web analytics company in Victoria, B.C., called AggregateIQ. The firm has come under investigation for its possible role in helping Britain’s Leave campaign.
By James H. Collins
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS