Christopher Wylie: Why I broke the Facebook data story – and what should happen now

The whistleblower at the centre of the Cambridge Analytica storm asks if Britain will now address the hard issues which it has raised

In January, I told the British authorities that the app that was used to harvest data for Cambridge Analytica was likely to have pulled the profiles of British Facebook users. Last week Facebook confirmed it: it told the world that as many as 87 million profiles were collected. This included more than one million British records.

A couple of days later, early on Saturday, Facebook took another dramatic action: it suspended AggregateIQ. This is important because AIQ was the Canadian data firm on which Vote Leave spent 40% of its budget during the EU referendum. But as I told parliament, I helped set up AIQ to support Cambridge Analytica. I also handed over documents showing AIQ’s ties to Cambridge Analytica.

At every step of this story, Facebook – from which I’m still banned – has lagged behind the truth. It was only when I came forward with documents – signed contracts and invoices – that proved Cambridge Analytica had funded the harvesting of Facebook profiles that it was finally forced to own up.

But then, there are certain facts that are hard to hear. And in the case of AIQ, Facebook might be slow, but it’s still managed to be ahead of many in Britain. Ten days ago I spent four hours testifying to the Fake News inquiry at parliament – and several more hours in private sessions.

Facebook has suspended AIQ while it investigates AIQ’s relationship with Cambridge Analytica and whether it had access to Facebook data. In Britain, on the other hand, Dominic Cummings, the former head of Vote Leave, called me a “fantasist charlatan”. Andrew Neil inferred that my testimony was “hearsay”. And while the national broadcaster in my home country, Canada, has covered the subject assiduously, on the day I appeared on BBC’s Today programme, it devoted more airtime to alleged ball tampering in Australian cricket than tampering with British democracy.

I’m disappointed, but I also understand it. It is extremely uncomfortable to consider that our democracy may have been corrupted. That potential crimes may have taken place – some of them on Facebook’s servers – that seem to be beyond the reach of law. It’s why I testified last week to parliament. It’s why I have given three binders of evidence about Vote Leave to the UK Electoral Commission and information commissioner’s office.

That evidence proved enough for Facebook to take action and suspend AIQ to investigate. Will Britain now take this evidence seriously?

Because this is not just about data. In Britain, we have strict spending limits for elections. It’s what has kept Britain from following the path of American politics, where elections are the sport of billionaires and corporate interests.

Beyond data, there are two more issues at stake here: overspending and coordination between campaigns. The law forbids campaigns from coordinating, to forestall the potential for shell entities and overspending vehicles. In the digital age, where political campaigns use Facebook as their predominant tool, it’s difficult to enforce. And when four different campaigns – Vote Leave, BeLeave, Veterans for Britain and the DUP – all used the same data firm, AIQ, it’s pretty much impossible.

My intention here, is to set out the issues – and the evidence – as simply as possible.

1 Tens of millions of Facebook profiles were harvested with the aim of assisting Cambridge Analytica’s voter-related work.

Facebook knew in December 2015 that data had been harvested on Cambridge Analytica’s behalf. It denied this until I came forward and produced the contract that SCL Elections, CA’s parent company, signed with GSR, Dr Aleksandr Kogan’s company, for the work.

The number of affected Facebook users is not precisely known. Cambridge Analytica says the company licensed from GSR data on “no more than 30 million US citizens”. The Observer estimates that GSR harvested more than 50 million Facebook profiles. Facebook says: “In total, we believe the Facebook information of up to 87 million people - mostly in the US - may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica.”

Contract agreement / schedule between SCL Elections and Global Science Research, June 2014
Letter from Facebook lawyers Aug 2016 to Wylie asking him to delete the “unauthorised” data

2 Canadian data firm AIQ had a relationship with Cambridge Analytica

I gave parliament contracts and an IP licence that show a relationship between AIQ and Cambridge Analytica. Staff lists from SCL, the parent of Cambridge Analytica, name the head of AIQ, Zack Massingham, as “Head of SCL Canada”.

AIQ has made no comment in the wake of Facebook’s action but it told the Observer last week that it is not a direct part and/or the Canadian branch of Cambridge Analytica. It has not been involved in the exploitation of Facebook data. It did not secretly and unethically coordinate with Cambridge Analytica on the EU referendum. It says it is 100% Canadian owned and operated.

3 AIQ built Cambridge Analytica’s platforms and may have had access to Facebook-derived data on its servers

AIQ built the “Ripon” platform that Cambridge Analytica used to target people using misappropriated Facebook data. I also gave parliament an email that suggests AIQ may have had access to the data and servers of Cambridge Analytica. It published one of these.

Facebook suspended AIQ after learning “it may be affiliated with SCL and, may, as a result have improperly received Facebook data”.

Service agreement between AIQ and Cambridge Analytica / SCL Elections, September 2014
Intellectual property license agreement between SCL Elections and AIQ, September 2014

4 The official Vote Leave campaign led by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson spent 40% of its budget on AIQ

This is public record: invoices are published on the Electoral Commission’s website. Dominic Cummings said that “without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ. We couldn’t have done it without them”. (See the document on pages 56-59 of this cache published by House of Commons select committee.)

Screengrab taken from AIQ homepage. After  contact from the Observer, it disappeared
Screengrab taken from AIQ homepage. After contact from the Observer, it disappeared Photograph: AggregateIQ

5 Vote Leave paid an additional £625,000 directly to AIQ on behalf of BeLeave

This was the largest single donation that Vote Leave made during the referendum. Donating to another campaign is perfectly legal – but only if the other campaign is actually separate. But if Vote Leave spent this sum of money in a coordinated way with BeLeave, it would have breached the legal spending limit. This is why its relationship with BeLeave is important. Vote Leave has repeatedly denied the coordination between the campaigns and said the donation was legitimate pursuant to electoral law. When the commission first looked at this in March 2017 it agreed with Vote Leave.

Zack Massingham, left, with Stephen Parkinson at the Vote Leave offices.
Zack Massingham, left, with Stephen Parkinson at the Vote Leave offices. Photograph: to come

6 BeLeave was given assistance and support by Vote Leave staff; it was run by 22- and 23-year-old volunteers with no campaign experience

The campaign was also based inside Vote Leave’s HQ. Vote Leave made a donation to BeLeave but gave the money directly to AIQ and it never hit BeLeave’s bank account.

7 Vote Leave managed a shared drive to co-ordinate BeLeave content

Vote Leave set up and administered a shared computer drive where its most senior staff had access to all of BeLeave’s content. AIQ was also on this drive. Why were Vote Leave and BeLeave sharing documents when they were supposed to be kept separate? Why did Vote Leave’s most senior staff – Cummings, Henry de Zoete and Victoria Woodcock – all have access to this BeLeave drive?

8 Did they then try to cover it up?

Days after Vote Leave was notified it was under investigation by the UK authorities, it attempted to remove its senior directors’ access from 140 BeLeave documents on the shared drive. Why would Vote Leave need to delete their access from the drive after being notified they were under investigation?

A gif showing changes made to BeLeave shared drive permissions on 17 March 2017.

9 What is AIQ’s role in this? Was British Facebook data, which is known to have been harvested by GSR, the company set up by Kogan, used? Was any data shared between Vote Leave, BeLeave, Veterans for Britain and the DUP?

We don’t know. Neither AIQ nor any of the campaign parties involved have answered these questions.

If this happened in Kenya or Nigeria, a new vote would be demanded by international observers. If this happened in a local constituency, a by-election would be called. Surely British democracy is mature enough to respond when something looks like it may have gone wrong, especially when the stakes are so high. The referendum was won by less than 2% of the vote. Could this have made the difference? Vote Leave’s chief strategist said it did: on a quote – now deleted – for AIQ’s website.

I am a progressive Eurosceptic. I supported Leave. This is not about “remoaning”. It’s about upholding the rule of law. The UK is about to embark on the most profound change to its constitutional settlement in a generation. We must be absolutely certain that this is being done on a proper legal basis. These are uncomfortable facts and hard questions. But Britain mustn’t “pull a Facebook”. Denial doesn’t work.

• This article was amended on 17 April 2018 to clarify that Cambridge Analytica did not directly deploy the data harvesting app. Global Science Research was contracted by a Cambridge Analytica related entity, SCL Elections. GSR harvested Facebook data using GSR’s app, and GSR licensed SCL Elections to use the data.

Christopher Wylie

The GuardianTramp

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