Christopher Wylie: The whistleblower in the Cambridge Analytica scandal

Christopher Wylie speaks at the Frontline Club in London, on March 20, 2018.
Christopher Wylie speaks at the Frontline Club in London, on March 20, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON - Born to parents who are physicians, 28-year-old Canadian Christopher Wylie was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia as a child.

In his interview with the Guardian, Wylie said he left school at 16 without a single qualification. But at 17, he was working in the office of the leader of the Canadian opposition. At 19, he taught himself to code, and in 2010, at age 20, he went to London to study law at the London School of Economics.

In 2013, one of Wylie's political connections introduced him to a company called Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL), one of whose subsidiaries, SCL Elections, would go on to create data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, with the help of Wylie.

Cambridge Analytica offers services to businesses and political parties and claims to be able to combine predictive analytics, behavioural sciences, and data-driven advertising technology to equip their clients with the necessary data and insights to drive campaigns.

The firm went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain's EU membership referendum, and later became a key figure in digital operations during US President Donald Trump's election campaign in 2016.

According to the Guardian, Cambridge Analytica collects data from a wide range of sources, including social media platforms such as Facebook, and its own polling. It has offices in New York, Washington DC, London, Brazil and Malaysia.

Billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer, also a key Trump supporter, poured US$15 million (S$19.7 million) in funding into Cambridge Analytica, after being introduced to the firm by Steve Bannon.

Bannon, who was on Cambridge Analytica's board from 2014 to 2016, headed the last phase of Trump's election campaign and later served as his chief strategist in the White House.

Wylie told the Guardian that Bannon - then executive chairman of the "alt-right" news network Breitbart - was his boss.

In an interview with the Washington Post on Tuesday (March 20), Wylie, whose job title at the time was Cambridge Analytica's research director, said Bannon was deeply involved in the company's strategy and approved spending nearly US$1 million to acquire data, including Facebook profiles, back in 2014.

The idea was to bring big data and social media to an established military methodology - "information operations" - then turn it on the US electorate. Wylie admitted to the Guardian that it was him who came up with that idea and oversaw its realisation.

Wylie said he thought of a plan to harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the US, and to use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles, which would then lead to targeted political ads. However, Cambridge Analytica lacked the actual data to execute the project.

Then in June 2014, SCL entered into a commercial arrangement with a company called Global Science Research (GSR), owned by Cambridge-based academic Aleksandr Kogan, specifically premised on the harvesting and processing of Facebook data, so that it could be matched to personality traits and voter rolls, the Guardian reported.

Wylie showed the Guardian documents that Cambridge Analytica spent US$7 million to amass this data, and about US$1 million of it with GSR.

In 2017, Wylie became the whistleblower who provided the Guardian with a tranche of documents that laid out the secret workings behind Cambridge Analytica.

By this time, Bannon had become Trump's chief strategist in the White House. According to Wylie, SCL had won contracts with the US State Department and was pitching to the Pentagon, and in his words, Wylie was "freaked out".

He told the Guardian: "It's insane. The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It's like Nixon on steroids."

On Tuesday, a lawyer for Wylie confirmed that he plans to accept an invitation from the US House Intelligence Committee Democrats to give an interview, as part of their effort to continue to investigate Russian interference in the election, including possible ties to the Trump campaign.