It’s been two weeks since Chris Wylie went from faceless data expert to world-famous whistleblower by revealing that Cambridge Analytica gamed Facebook on behalf of right-wing causes like the Brexit “leave” campaign, before the firm was hired for Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Because of Wylie, we now know how Cambridge Analytica got its hands on 50 million Facebook users’ personal data and spread targeted political content, and how Facebook's old privacy rules made it perfectly OK.
Those revelations have set off a firestorm for the social media giant, and triggered a Federal Trade Commission investigation in the U.S., hearings before Congress and Parliament, and a police investigation in the U.K.
For Wylie, the fallout has been life-changing. In addition to the year he spent preparing to tell his story to The Observer, The Guardian, The New York Times, and others, his day-to-day now means dealing with the tsunami of interest from the media, responding to requests from governments and investigators, and dealing with people who recognize him on the street (the pink hair doesn’t help).
“It’s been chaotic. I cannot keep up with the demands for my time,” said Wylie, 28. “The first couple days you could keep up with it, but after a while it weighs you down.”
On this day, VICE News is Wylie’s fourth interview, and he’s not even close to done. Earlier in the day he’d given a witness statement to U.K. police, and attended a “Fair Vote” rally on Brexit, at which he was harassed. “I got attacked several times after,” he said. “I had bodyguards, and even then I had to be bundled into a car.”
He is routinely tracked and filmed by right-wing bloggers who blame him for undermining the will of the people, as well as progressives who blame him for helping set up Cambridge Analytica in the first place.
“I’m a Euro-skeptic myself, so Brexit is not my sacred cow,” he said. “But if you win by cheating and breaking the law on something so fundamental as an irreversible change to the constitution, you should probably double-check with people that indeed that’s what they want.”
We asked him about his life now and if we should all #deleteFacebook. The answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
What’s been hardest about being a whistleblower?
Well, I can’t do my job anymore because I got banned from Facebook. And for somebody who works in online advertising, when you can’t work on Facebook it’s sort of a thing. I have no idea what I’m going to do. I think I am one of the only people in the world they have banned as a person, not just an account, but as a person.
Why did Facebook ban you?
What I find bizarre about the whole thing is that they have known about this for several years, and I corresponded with their lawyers back in 2016. So I gave them help when they were investigating this the first time. When I called and asked their lawyers if they wanted to talk about it, they didn’t seem to care that much about it. It seemed like a routine thing. It was only when Facebook found out I was planning to go public with it that they decided to ban me, which didn’t make any sense because I was the one who went to the authorities. It wasn’t Facebook that went to the authorities. I am not a suspect. I’m a key witness. Yet they still maintain a ban on me.
[Facebook disputes this account. “Mr. Wylie has refused to cooperate with us until we lift the suspension on his account. Given he said he ‘exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,’ we cannot do this at this time,” a spokesman told VICE News.]
Was Facebook’s ad tech broken when it leaked 50 million profiles?
It’s hard to say it was broken when they intended for it to work that way. This wasn’t an oversight; it was an actual feature that you could apply for and it would be granted to your app. It’s not broken. I understand there is some legitimate ways you could use that feature. It doesn’t have to always be nefarious to collect friends’ data.
Is it fixed now?
Well, no, because you can still pull data out of Facebook. The only difference is you can’t pull out friend data using an app. You can scrape the sites; if somebody installs browser extensions, you can get friend data. If somebody puts something on your phone on your computer that then accesses Facebook and then pulls data — there is no way Facebook can stop that from happening.
How would you do that?
It’s very easy to get people to download things. You offer someone a coupon for 5 percent off a Subway sandwich, and they will download something. You can get anything you want about this person and indeed everyone they interact with.
If we wanted to know if the 50 million profiles were used by the Trump campaign in the U.S., how would we do that?
Ask Facebook? Facebook sent out this weird message that sort of implied that it didn’t quite know how many records actually got pulled from the system. They were conservative in their statement, like, ‘We’re going to work with people who may have been affected by this even if we’re not sure.’ It’s sort of insinuating that they might not even know or they might not have maintained records of the people who had the app. Or they might have records of people who had the app, but might not have the friends of the people who had the app at the time. So they might not even really know whose data actually was pulled.
Do you know which Cambridge Analytics employees embedded in the Trump campaign?
I know Alexander Nix was there, and Alexander Taylor. They had an office in Texas. A lot of the team was based in Texas but not in Trump headquarters. They had an office called Project Alamo. But in terms of other people, I’m not sure because I did not work on the Trump campaign.
What should Facebook be doing going into 2018 to stop this from happening again?
One of the first recommendations I would have is, in every advertisement have a very clear ‘This is who paid for it’ and ‘These are the parameters you are being targeted on.’ If you also had some sort of communal monitoring system so you could flag ads with warnings so you don’t necessarily need to stop the ads. If an ad has gotten a lot of complaints, show people that, warn people. You do get into other issues if you are narrowly targeting something. If you are targeting people prone to conspiratorial thinking, as Cambridge Analytica used to do, say that a certain percentage of the ad buy has to go to a random cohort to encourage monitoring. There are a lot of things you can do that doesn’t limit free speech.
What about restricting this kind of targeting altogether?
I think it would be a mistake to create an overly restrictive platform for advertisers simply because that may actually encourage bad behavior.
Should we all delete Facebook?
I find the whole Delete Facebook really problematic because it creates this dichotomy where it’s like either you surrender all data and you have no privacy or you just don’t use those platforms. So the problem I see with a lot of the potential solutions or proposed solutions is I just see them not working long-term. You can’t really escape the role of data online and you can’t escape social networks and you can’t escape Google, in the same way you can’t escape electricity. The way we deal with electricity is we demand proper safety standards. You have building codes — and building codes that are really specific. It’s not just that you have to have safe wiring, it defines what that is.
OK, so should we be avoiding social networks or limiting what we disclose to them?
I don’t think people should be avoiding social networks because, what next?! Are you not going to use Google anymore, or email anymore, or apps anymore? How the fuck are you going to function? How are you going to apply for a job without LinkedIn? Or function at work or have a life if you can’t use Google? How are you going to interact with people without social networks? These are now essential parts of daily life, so treat them that way.
If Facebook is a utility, should it be regulated like one?
When you look at how utilities are regulated at the forefront is safety. We recognize as a society that whether to use or not to use electricity is not really a choice. You can’t really function in modern society without electricity. So if you need it, you have to use it. The narrative of consumer choice or you could just walk away and not have electricity is a false choice. There is no substantive freedom in that. In the same way that you don’t really have a choice to not use a social network. So let’s look at safety and let’s look at engineering and look at systems design.
What would Facebook regulation look like?
I think that you can have platforms that engage data and use data but you can still maintain people’s privacy and consent. I see consent as an ongoing thing. So, for example, when we look at consent like sexual relations saying yes at one moment doesn’t mean it’s yes for everything forever. So you know when we look at consent in other in other areas like sexual assault, you might you know start with some kind of intimate contact and decide you don’t want to proceed further and revoke consent. And so like even just basic things like renewal of consent, or for example having the terms and conditions that are based around the idea of reasonable expectations.
Cover image: Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie arrives to speak at a demonstration held by Fair Vote, outside the Houses of Parliament in London, calling for a fair vote on the EU referendum, March 29, 2018. (Photo by Ben Cawthra/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)