Cambridge Analytica whistleblower says data targeting caused Brexit

27 Mar 2018

UK House of Commons. Image: Drop of Light/Shutterstock

Chris Wylie tells UK House of Commons that data manipulation altered the Brexit vote outcome.

Microtargeting of voters by Cambridge Analytica contributed to the decision for Britain to leave the EU, Chris Wylie told the UK House of Commons’ parliamentary select committee on digital, culture, media and sport.

Wylie is the Canadian whistleblower who helped to reveal how his former employer, Cambridge Analytica, used data generated by a third-party app on Facebook to generate profiles of 50m people, in an act that may have tipped the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum in 2016.

That particular app – This Is Your Digital Life – was developed by Cambridge psychology professor Dr Aleksandr Kogan’s company, GSR, specifically for Cambridge Analytica.

Using loopholes that existed in Facebook’s Open Graph in 2014, 270,000 users who downloaded the app effectively opened the door to the harvesting of a total of 50m user profiles.

Wylie told MPs that it was “incredibly reasonable” to assume that marketing software used by Cambridge Analytica contributed to the Leave campaign’s victory.

He told the House of Commons committee that this marketing software, called AggregateIQ, was used by different Leave campaign groups to target between 5m and 7m voters, to deliver a high “conversion rate.”

He also said that technology made by Palantir, a tech firm founded by Peter Thiel, was used on the Facebook data harvested by Cambridge Analytica.

Influence brokering

Wylie said that it was possible for Cambridge Analytica to create a psychological profile of a person more prone to a certain idea or conspiracy theories, and then target them with advertising.

He said this tactic was used in elections around the world, including the 2016 one that saw Donald Trump elected as president of the US, as well as the pivotal vote that saw Brexit become a reality by the tiniest margin.

Wylie said that Strategic Communications Laboratories, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, engaged in “influence brokering”.

Helping entities to win elections in countries around the world using data and psychological profiling wouldn’t necessarily be a big earner, but would result in potentially lucrative deals down the line.

“Part of the business model of SCL is to capture a government, win an election. You get paid for that but you don’t get a ton of money,” he told the House of Commons committee.

“Where you get money is then going to the minister and introducing the minister to a company and then making deals.

“There were different companies interested in building ports and things like that, and, in order to get a competitive advantage, some money goes here and some money goes here, and you can introduce the company to the minister and the minister approves the project and you get a cut of that deal.”

Wylie said the use of the same AggregateIQ technology tools by the various Leave campaign groups was far too coincidental to have been an accident.

The claims by Wylie have sparked an emergency debate in the House of Commons that Vote Leave broke election spending rules in the EU referendum.

In related news, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has declined an invitation to give evidence to a British parliamentary inquiry into fake news.

Instead, the company will be putting forward either its chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, or its chief product officer, Chris Cox.

Damian Collins, chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, said the body would still like Zuckerberg to appear, either in person or via a video link.

He said that, given the serious nature of the allegations being made around the access to Facebook user data, it would appropriate for Zuckerberg to appear before the committee.

UK House of Commons. Image: Drop of Light/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years