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Canadian whistleblower on why he exposed ‘problematic’ Facebook data misuse by Trump consulting firm

A Canadian data analytics expert says he wanted to expose a “problematic” invasion of privacy when he sounded the alarm and alleged a data company he helped found misused personal information from millions of Facebook users while working for Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

In an interview with The National‘s Adrienne Arsenault, Christopher Wylie said he was tasked with “psychological profiling” while working at Cambridge Analytica and was able to pull data from users through apps that required the use of Facebook.

“They would fill out psychological surveys and then that app would then go and pull all of of their Facebook data,” said the 28-year-old from B.C.

“From that, we were able to make inferences or predictions about people who we haven’t yet spoken to,” Wylie added.

“It allowed us to profile upwards of 50 million Americans over a span of a couple of months and understand not only their personality traits but how they think… and what exactly we need to do in order to pick at certain mental or emotional vulnerabilities so that those people would behave in a particular way that was conducive to [Trump campaign chief executive] Steve Bannon’s objective.”

‘I need to speak out’

Wylie said he decided to go the press with his story — first reported by The New York Times and The Observer of London — after seeing Trump become president and the rise of the alt-right.

“It really made me reflect on the impact that Cambridge Analytica has had,” he said.

“I reflected on it… I said to myself that I need to speak out now because I have seen the impact that this company has had and I think people should know about how it works.” 

Wylie also said the company’s practices were unethical and needed to be called out.

“I think that the algorithms that they have built… using that private data they acquired without consent, is problematic.”

In a statement on Saturday, Cambridge Analytica said it “fully complies with Facebook’s terms of services,” adding that they “do not hold or use any data from profiles.”

On Sunday, Facebook said it was was conducting a “comprehensive internal and external review” to determine if the personal data of 50 million users that was reported to be misused still existed.

Paul Grewal, a Facebook vice-president and deputy general counsel, said in a statement on Sunday the company was committed to “vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information.”

Facebook said a Cambridge University psychology professor had lied to the company and violated its policies by passing data to Cambridge Analytica from an app he had developed. It suspended the firm from Facebook.

‘I am accepting my share of the responsibility’

Wylie said that it’s “intimidating” to speak out, but believes it was the right thing to do.

“Speaking out against social media giants like Facebook is intimidating, particularly when I come forward as a whistleblower,” he said, adding that he is also speaking out against his former company, Trump, Bannon and their supporters.

“But I think that it’s important for people to know what this company does, its impact on American elections and elections around the world, and also more broadly to hold social media companies like Facebook accountable.”

For his part, Wylie acknowledges his role in the saga, and wants Facebook to do the same.

“I am accepting my share of responsibility in what happens with Cambridge Analytica,” he said.

“I think that Facebook should also accept some share of responsibility as to what happened.”

CBC | Technology News