Canadian at centre of Facebook data scandal cut political teeth with Liberals

The Canadian whistleblower at the centre of an international scandal that allegedly helped the Trump campaign capitalize politically from private Facebook information got his start in politics with the Liberal Party of Canada.

The Liberal Party insists it doesn't sell information under any circumstances

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. 4:18

The Canadian whistleblower at the centre of an international scandal that allegedly helped the Trump campaign capitalize politically from private Facebook information got his start in politics with the Liberal Party of Canada.

But several senior Liberal officials from that time, about a decade ago, insist they have almost no recollection of then-teenager Christopher Wylie — if any at all.

The New York Times and The Observer of London have reported U.S. President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign hired a data-analytics company that harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users.

Cambridge Analytica, the company named by Wylie as being behind the massive leak, exploited private social media activity to help allow the Trump campaign to better target voters by profiling their behaviour and personalities ahead of the U.S. election, according to the reports. The firm connected with Trump's political adviser Steve Bannon, whom Wylie also met, the reports said.

'I do feel responsible'

Wylie, a 28-year-old from British Columbia, is the data scientist who spoke out about the controversy. He's also the man who helped found Cambridge Analytica.

"I do feel responsible for it and it's something that I regret," Wylie said in a video interview posted on The Observer's web page.

"It was a grossly unethical experiment because you are playing with an entire country, the psychology of an entire country, without their consent or awareness."

The reports provided many details about the whistleblower who in 2007 or 2008 landed his first political gig with the federal Liberals.

At age 17, he worked in the office of Canada's opposition leader, who at that time was then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, said one of the reports. When he was 18 years old, the newspaper said he learned all about data while working for officials on former U.S. president Barack Obama's campaign team, and later introduced one director to the Liberals.

A senior source with the Liberal Party said Sunday that Wylie last worked for the party less than a decade ago, before Justin Trudeau became leader, and was also previously involved in its youth commission. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss staffing details.

However, former Liberal officials from that time said they either hadn't heard of Wylie — or they barely remembered him.

"I vaguely recall him," wrote one former senior official in an email Sunday. "I think that he was a summer intern."

Another former senior Liberal, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he asked former colleagues Sunday and some people remembered Wylie. They say he was "pretty junior" and worked in the data strategy and communications space.

One former party official, however, said while they didn't know Wylie well, they remembered him as a "big advocate of microtargeting."

Liberal Party insists it doesn't sell information

One of the newspaper reports said Wylie came up with the idea behind Cambridge Analytica at age 24.

The article also said Wylie was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia as a teen and left school at 16 years old without any qualifications. After working for the Liberals and Obama's campaign, the report said he taught himself to code at age 19 and later studied law at the London School of Economics.

The reports also said Cambridge Analytica played a major role in the referendum that led to Britain's vote to leave the European Union.

Another article published May 2017 by The Guardian quoted a source that connected Wylie to a web analytics company in Victoria, B.C., called AggregateIQ. The firm has come under scrutiny in Britain for its possible role in helping the Leave campaign win the Brexit referendum.

Asked about Wylie, Canada's Liberal Party said in a statement Sunday that protecting the information of Canadians it engages with is a "foremost priority."

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)

The party said it has a clear, stringent policy that protects individuals' private information. It also said its agreements with campaign partners also include strict requirements.

The party insists it doesn't sell information under any circumstances.

A spokeswoman for Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said Sunday that social media platforms have a responsibility to help ensure citizens and the democratic processes are protected from "threats like foreign interference, data breaches, hate speech, and misinformation."

"While some social media platforms have begun to take initial steps to address these issues, it's clear that much more needs to be done," Jordan Owens wrote in an email.

Owens said the government would work with social media firms to ensure they respect and help preserve the integrity of Canada's democracy.

Facebook said in a weekend blog post that claims the harvesting of user information was a data breach are "completely false."

The statement said University of Cambridge psychology professor Aleksandr Kogan accessed the information after he requested it from users who gave their consent when they chose to sign up for his Facebook app.

"People knowingly gave their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked," said the post by Paul Grewal, Facebook's vice-president and deputy general counsel.

Daniel Therrien, Canada's privacy commissioner, said in a statement on Monday the reports raise "serious privacy concerns."

Therrien said that his office will be contacting Facebook to seek information into whether the personal information of Canadians was affected.

He also called on the Canadian government to strengthen regulations surrounding the collection, use and disclosure of personal information by political parties.

With files from CBC News