Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Research Bureau awarded a $100,000 contract in 2016 to Christopher Wylie, the whistle-blower at the centre of a global controversy over the misuse of data from tens of millions of Facebook users.
The contract for a short-lived pilot project was no one-off: It was among many interactions between Mr. Wylie, the data-driven political entrepreneur, and the federal Liberal Party stretching back nearly a decade.
The revelation on Wednesday about the contract with Mr. Wylie’s company, Eunoia Technologies, brought to Parliament a controversy over allegations that global consultants wrongly obtained and data-mined volumes of personal information from the social media giant to motivate or manipulate voters.
Party insiders say that, starting in 2008, Mr. Wylie was a Liberal volunteer and researcher who played a role in introducing and shaping the party’s drive toward data-driven techniques.
He was a teenager then, boosting fringe techniques – including a now widely used piece of software known as “Liberalist” – while aggressively avowing to the party’s old guard that only technology could reverse the party’s electoral fortunes.
There is no allegation Mr. Wylie has ever done anything illegal or unethical in Canada.
When Mr. Wylie came forward last weekend, he said he moved to Britain and, in 2013, helped start a firm known as Cambridge Analytica, and that the company misused the Facebook data. He also acknowledged his own role in the data-mining.
Mr. Wylie started Eunoia Technologies after leaving Cambridge Analytica.
When asked in Toronto whether the connection with Mr. Wylie taints the Liberals’ own use of data, Mr. Trudeau said: “As a government, we take extremely seriously the importance of protecting Canadians’ privacy.” He added that he’s pleased that the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is now investigating underlying matters related to the Facebook case.
The Liberal Party’s research bureau – an entity most Canadians do not know exists –released a statement on Wednesday about the 2016 contract in response to a news story by The Canadian Press.
The statement said the work involved a “pilot project” with several facets, including help in “acquiring and setting up social-media monitoring tools.” While preliminary work was done, the statement said, the job went no further. “After seeing what was offered, Liberal Caucus Research Bureau decided not to move forward.” No data were provided to Mr. Wylie or his company, it said.
A decade ago, Mr. Wylie also received a cold shoulder from party leaders − even though he was on the fringes of the Liberal organization at the time, among the volunteers and paid researchers.
Liberal insiders say the teenager tried to gain some gravitas with snazzy suits and spectacles.
But ultimately, it was his designs on data that made a more lasting impression. The Liberal Party was churning through leaders, with the Conservatives under Stephen Harper using more precise voter targeting than they were. Several ambitious young technocrats from British Columbia, including, but not limited to, Mr. Wylie, urged the party to fight back, saying Big Data wins elections.
Mostly, they sang the praises of Liberalist – then an underutilized tool derived from one used in the successful U.S. campaign to elect former president Barrack Obama in 2008. While it was just software someone more senior had bought from a company in Washington, Mr. Wylie touted it as a vehicle that could drive the party back to power.
The software, at the time, didn’t do much more than allow Liberal volunteers to use their phones to log their interactions as they called and canvassed potential voters, the insiders said. But such exercises get infinitely more powerful if repeated millions of times, and especially if a political party refines its growing dataset while marrying it with other kinds of data that can be acquired on the open market.
All parties use such techniques now, but at the time there was considerable skepticism.
Pat Sorbara, who in 2010 was a deputy campaign manager for then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, recalled Mr. Wylie as someone “way ahead of his time.” He pitched her on microtargeting even though, at the time, she said, he was an intern for a Liberal MP Keith Martin.
She was impressed by his ideas, but said that after his initial presentation she had to reject his proposals owing to a lack of time and resources. Her party, she said, “was really still focused on macrotargeting” – essentially, figuring out which ridings to prioritize.
Mr. Ignatieff’s Liberals not only lost the next election to the Conservatives, but ended up behind the NDP. In Mr. Wylie’s home province of British Columbia, only two MPs held their seats.
The next year, Brian Gold, a party executive for an Edmonton riding, pitched the party on making campaign data and microtargeting a national strategy. A footnote in that six-page proposal credited Mr. Wylie for helping make the formal case for the party to do more with data.
“A significant reason the [Liberal Party of Canada] has slipped to third place is that alone amongst major political parties in leading democracies we lack the basic ‘permanent campaign’ tools and data that all of our competitors have,” Mr. Gold wrote.
Sometime after this, Mr. Wylie moved to Britain to work for a constellation of consultancies – including Cambridge Analytica – which were taking the intersection of data and politics to new levels. It’s not known what Canadian political work, if any, he did at this time.
The statement issued by the Liberals on Wednesday may leave the impression that Mr. Wylie and the party were done with each other after the failed contract work in early 2016.
But there was at least one more intersection in August of that year.
Two senior Liberal data specialists shared a stage with Mr. Wylie at a conference in Berkeley, Calif., on “effective altruism.” He spoke about data and politics on a panel that included the Liberal Research Bureau’s director of research and insights, Alexandre Sevigny.
The panel also included Brett Thalmann, who was managing director of the bureau at the time, but is now director of administration and special projects in the Prime Minister’s Office.
All major parties in Canada now have research offices. Federal parties with official status receive taxpayer-funded budgets for political research bureaus. Traditionally, the money has been used to produce flyers and websites for MPs and party leaders, or to keep tabs on their political rivals.
But practises are evolving in ways that are difficult for the public to see, leading to questions about potential privacy invasions.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer led off Question Period on Wednesday by asking the government about its connections to Mr. Wylie.
“Protecting the personal and privacy information of Canadians should be a top priority for government. Yet, this Prime Minister has failed to be honest with Canadians about the Liberal Party’s relationship with an individual who has exploited the private information of millions of people around the world,” he said.
With reports from Justin Giovannetti, Robert Fife, Paul Waldie, Justine Hunter, Adam Radwanski and Sunny Dhillon