British Columbia

Who is Christopher Wylie? How a B.C. high school dropout set out on path to political data harvesting

The Victoria whistleblower alleges that while working for Cambridge Analytica he illegally harvested data from millions of Facebook users to help Donald Trump win the U.S. election.

A look at the early life of the Victoria native who blew the whistle on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

Christopher Wylie told CBC News that Cambridge Analytica targeted millions of Americans during the election campaign without their knowledge based on psychological profiles and surveys. (Lily Martin/CBC)

He describes himself as the gay Canadian vegan who somehow ended up creating "Steve Bannon's psychological warfare mindf--k tool."

That's what whistleblower Christopher Wylie told the U.K.'s Guardian, which broke Wylie's confession that he used the illegally harvested private information of more than 50 million Facebook users for a Bannon-run company called Cambridge Analytica to target voters on behalf of Donald Trump's 2016 U.S. election campaign.

But how does a 20-something high school dropout from British Columbia become a data genius and central figure in a far-reaching international scandal? 

Canadian whistleblower Christopher Wylie talks about Cambridge Analytica

6 years ago
Duration 4:19
Cambridge Analytica mined tens of millions of Facebook profiles and that may have helped influence the U.S. election and the U.K. Brexit vote. Now Canadian whistleblower Christopher Wylie is speaking out about what he knows.

Wylie grew up in the Victoria area, the son of Dr. Kevin Wylie and Dr. Joan Carruthers, who appear to share a practice in Oak Bay.

Wylie and his parents declined requests to be interviewed.

The Guardian article states that as a six-year-old at school, "Wylie was abused by a mentally unstable person. The school tried to cover it up, blaming his parents, and a long court battle followed."

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B.C. Supreme Court documents show that in January 2000, Kevin and Christopher Wylie brought legal action against Stephan Doe and School District No. 61 — the Greater Victoria School District.

The Wylies won a settlement of $290,000 against the district in October 2006.

Wylie told the Guardian he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia and that he was bullied as a child. The paper also reported that he quit school at age 16 without having graduated. 

Wylie grew up in Victoria and worked for then-Liberal MP Keith Martin. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Wylie was around 16 years old when he won the settlement from the school district, and the same age when he started dabbling in politics — volunteering at the constituency office of Keith Martin, former Reform and later a Liberal MP for Esquimalt–Juan de Fuca. 

Martin, a medical doctor, was friends with Wylie's parents, whom he had met while interning at Victoria's Jubilee Hospital in the 1980s.

Reached at his current home in Washington, D.C., Martin told CBC News that Wylie helped around the office but was not involved in any sort of data analysis.

He said after a time Wylie asked if he could volunteer at Martin's Ottawa office, and he agreed to the move.

"He was obviously a smart guy," said Martin. "He was involved in the local Liberal Party with the young Liberals and he wanted to come to Ottawa and see what was happening." 

Another person who knew Wylie from his Victoria days remembers the teenager as "obviously bright and energetic."

The source, who has been granted anonymity for professional reasons, was a former member of Martin's riding executive in 2006 during the time Wylie was the riding's youth representative.

"[Wylie] was the social media expert at a time when I think Twitter had just been invented and Facebook was only a couple years old. He was behind the push to get everybody on the riding executive onto these new social media as a way of communicating out to other supporters."

The source remembers Wylie getting involved with the U.S. Democrats and wanting to learn from them.

"They were cutting-edge social media, voter identification, voter database — into that kind of business and he wanted to learn as much as he could... so that the Liberals could adopt it."

A report out today by Canadian Press said in 2009 Wylie lost his job in the office of former federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff for pushing a nascent form of the controversial data-harvesting technique.