Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower Warns Illicit Data Use a Facet of Modern Elections

Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie testifies before the U.S. Senate in May 2018. (Photo Credit: Tasos Katopodis/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
October 9, 2019

It has been nearly two years since the Cambridge Analytica scandal rocked civil society, leaving politicians and average citizens reeling over the illicit use of personal data in electoral campaigns. Today, Christopher Wylie — the ex-Cambridge Analytica employee who exposed the impropriety — is warning that the practice remains a major threat.

"This is a new facet of elections in the 21st century," said Wylie, whose new memoir, Mindf-ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America, details the scandal that percolated through the 2016 election of President Trump.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which was largely uncovered in early 2018, centered around the London-based company's practice of using false pretenses to harvest personal information from millions of U.S. voters' Facebook accounts. The company was first employed by the 2016 campaign of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and later used by the Trump team. With the mined data, the campaigns could essentially deploy highly targeted political ads to likely and on-the-fence voters.

"Facebook, because of its loose permissioning oversight at the time, actually authorized an application to harvest all of the data — tens of millions of American's private records," Wiley explained.

In April 2018, Facebook announced that the personal information of up to 87 million people was improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica. "It was my mistake, and I'm sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I'm responsible for what happens here," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during a Senate hearing on the scandal later that month.

While the internal workings remain opaque, Cambridge Analytica was established in 2013 as a subsidiary of the SCL Group, a behavioral research firm. The company was co-founded by Steve Bannon, the former Trump campaign's chief executive and later White House adviser, and financed partly by Robert Mercer, an American billionaire with a long history of funding conservative and right-wing groups.

Wiley said he quit the company when it shifted its focus from studying how radical groups recruit and influence people online to actually targeting voters with harvested data — and stoking ideological flashpoints for electoral gains.

"They are so filled with hate and rage at something they don't realize was just made up to make them feel that way," Wiley said of the targeted audiences. Wiley also claimed that he left the firm after he witnessed close coordination with Russian entities.

The offices of Cambridge Analytica in central London in March 2018. Photo Credit: Brais G Rouco/Sopa Images/Shutterstock

Aside from the 2016 U.S. vote, Cambridge Analytica also launched campaigns to influence elections in countries ranging from India to Kenya, and backed digital marketing efforts in support of the Brexit referendum. The company eventually shut down entirely in May 2018, just months after an undercover video surfaced of executives offering extortion, bribery, and honey trap services to a potential client that was seeking to influence an election in Sri Lanka.

"My concern is that the capabilities didn't go away, the people didn't go away," Wiley said. "And what happens if China becomes the next Cambridge Analytica? What happens if North Korea or Iran becomes the next Cambridge Analytica?"

With the 2020 U.S. election in full swing, Wiley called on the government to protect personal data online to prevent it from being misused for political purposes. "Leaving that to Silicon Valley is a really naive and bad idea," he said.

Unlike many other countries, the U.S. does not have a nationwide regulatory regime that protects personal data online. Several states, however, have pursued their own legislation — such as the forthcoming California Consumer Privacy Act — that limits how data is shared.

Yet the internet, Wiley said, is something that the "government just doesn't understand."

"There is no regulator … in the federal government who is both technically competent and empowered to enforce and protect our best interest," Wiley said. "Right now we leave that completely to the tech sector."