People Behind the Policy: Christopher Wylie

By Editor-in-Chief Guinevere Poncia

How on trend, I’m at a tech conference in Shoreditch. ‘In:Confidence’ 2018 is organised by Privitar, a company that aims at ‘engineering privacy’. Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, data privacy is an increasingly in-demand product, an essential part of everyone’s business and personal future. Lucky for me, Christopher Wylie, equally well-known (it seems) for his pink hair as being the Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower, is here.  

The use of data is a heavily political issue. After all, the scandal centred around 87 million individuals’ data being shared without their explicit consent for the purpose of political targeting. Facebook's role, however, is part of a much bigger story about how personal digital information can be harvested, analysed, and used to influence decision-making. When that decision-making is a vote in a ‘free and fair’ election, principles at the heart of the democratic process are called into question.

Chris has an interesting take on this. He compares the use of data from Facebook’s compromised users to a blind date. The first party on the date knows everything about second, who remains ignorant of the others' insight. Equipped with intimate knowledge of the latter’s likes, dislikes, annoyances, and weaknesses (akin to the psychological profile Facebook can build of anyone after just 100 likes), the first party would be able to effectively manipulate the second's feelings, whilst they remained unaware of their undue influence. The latter party would believe there to be a genuine 'spark' of attraction, rather than a deliberately manufactured connection based on extensive research. 

In a similar manner, the imbalance of information that Facebook’s and Cambridge Analytica's treatment of personal data causes a phenomenon called ‘disinformation’. Essentially, a warped reality for a subset of the electorate subject to this type of manipulation. Chris, like many others, identifies these “alternate realities” in which political choice appears to be free but may be subject to manipulation, fuelling the erosion of democratic freedoms. He argues that the underlying presumption of a democracy is that all involved exist in the same reality and can, therefore, make informed, free choices at the ballot box. His background in the deployment of "non-kinetic weaponry" in the military, for SCL Group (Cambridge Analytica grew out of its subsidiary, 'SCL Elections'), gives his point an alarming undertone. The weaponisation of information, he argues, amounts to a denial of consent: people’s votes have become embroiled in a conflict that threatens the heart of democratic practice. 

This is what those who broke the story about Chris Wylie had in mind. Chris tells us that there were no technology or political writers in the Observer and Guardian teams, meaning emphasis was placed on the cultural and social impact of the data-sharing story. Maybe, this is why it had the impact it did. Stories about the disregard social media companies have for their customers' data have been circulating for a few years without the same impact.

However, Chris thinks that this scandal had such a visceral public reaction simply because it was by nature very personal. Facebook’s own brand was its greatest downfall in this sense. If a company builds itself upon facilitating personal connections between individuals, if the trust underpinning that relationship between consumer and company is broken, it will initiate a moment of unprecedented change because so many have been personally affected by the revelations. The exploitation of people's vulnerabilities for the purpose of manipulation is what Facebook’s revenue is built on, but it has taken this scandal for people to realise the alarming implications this has for our political reality.

Facebook has known about the risks to customer privacy for years. When I asked Chris about why they had refused to meaningfully address the issue, he responded that it was neither overwhelming naivety nor maliciousness. His impression was that, for the most part, Facebook was wary of frustrating its partners and advertisers, which would inevitably hurt business. I’m not sure they ever anticipated the $50 billion landslide that Chris’ story would cause. Indeed, he described Facebook’s reaction to the story - initially, an aggressive attempt to spike the story and threats of suing  – as “the biggest home goal I’ve ever seen”. It simply exposed how untrustworthy the company was. No wonder denial quickly turned into an apology

On another level, Chris’ story brings into focus yet again the awkward and often hypocritical reality that whistleblowers face. Although Chris denies any comparison to Edward Snowden, he does acknowledge his own instrumental role in setting up the Cambridge Analytica project that he abandoned when it became, in his own words, “super sketch.” He claims to have embraced the scrutiny that he has consequently faced – pointing out that he volunteered to testify to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, unlike Mark Zuckerberg, who faced an at times laughable gruelling by members of Congress. Wylie also faced questioning by the US House Intelligence Committee.

So, despite the destructive turn that Cambridge Analytica’s project took, Chris is still invested in the future of data and its uses. He sees the #DeleteFacebook campaign as dodging the problem but lauded what he perceived to be a dramatic and positive shift in the mindset of legislators towards actively enforcing rules on data privacy. In fact, he makes the case to me that whilst the use of data needs rigorous regulation, targeted voter data could be used to improve voter engagement amongst those groups most disenfranchised from the political system. Whilst this remains a controversial and challenging topic, it is certain that legislators, businesses, politicians, and voters still have much to learn.  

Sources and Further Reading:

Thank you to Privitar for having me along to this event. Image credit to them. 

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