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Canada Meet Christopher Wylie, whistle-blower on Cambridge Analytica and Facebook use of data

Christopher Wylie, who helped found the data firm Cambridge Analytica and worked there until 2014, is photographed in London on March 12, 2018.

ANDREW TESTA/The New York Times

Christopher Wylie’s strange and winding path from whiz-kid Canadian political operative to digital soldier in Steve Bannon’s culture war to whistle-blower can be traced to his Victoria elementary school.

When he was six years old, Mr. Wylie was attacked at school by another student, sparking a six-year court battle between the family and the school district.

While a judge eventually granted Mr. Wylie and his parents a settlement of $290,000 to make things right, he emerged from the experience with a new passion for confronting injustice and institutional malfeasance.

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From those beginnings, Mr. Wylie, now 28, is being hailed around the globe for revealing how the data firm he helped establish, Cambridge Analytica, improperly collected 50 million Facebook profiles and manipulated the information to influence elections, according to reports in The New York Times and The Observer of London.

Partly owned by hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and headed at one time by Mr. Bannon, former senior adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, Cambridge Analytica worked with Mr. Trump’s election team and the Brexit campaign.

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons,” Mr. Wylie told The Observer as part of a media roll-out that has thrust a onetime politically active Victoria teenager into the international spotlight.

His disclosures have alarmed lawmakers around the world and brought a new level of scrutiny to the way Facebook and other social-media companies use personal data.

“This is a rapidly moving, rapidly evolving situation because of technology,” said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale on Monday. “What we know or think we know today is likely to be radically different six months from now. And we have to be alert to every twist and turn along the way.”

Mr. Wylie had sought political influence from a young age in Victoria, where his mother is a psychiatrist and his father a doctor. Mr. Wylie attended Glenlyon Norfolk School, one of the top private schools in the city, and, according to court documents, Pearson College, an elite senior secondary school.

Most of the court documents associated with the lawsuit, filed in 2000, have been destroyed owing to the age of the case. The lawyer who represented the Wylie family, Rory Lambert, says Mr. Wylie was attacked by a student.

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Mr. Wylie’s father, Dr. Kevin Wylie, sued the local school district on behalf of his son and also named the other child as a defendant.

“The effect was deeply emotional at a time when he was developing emotionally and socially,” Mr. Lambert said in an interview. “He has gone on to excel in law school.”

Online court records show the case was settled in 2006; the settlement included $90,000 for the parents and $200,000 that was to be held in trust for Christopher.

By this time, his verve for politics was already clear. As of November, 2005, he was acting as a liaison between Victoria city hall and the community’s youth as a member of the City of Victoria Youth Council and was quoted in the Times-Colonist newspaper promoting a survey he’d helped create to gauge the mood of the city’s youth.

Mr. Wylie's disclosures have alarmed lawmakers around the world and brought a new level of scrutiny to the way Facebook and other social-media companies use personal data.

ANDREW TESTA/The New York Times News Service

The following year, the National Post published the first of a series of letters to the editor he wrote to media outlets commenting on political affairs of the day. Election records show a Christopher Wylie in Victoria donated several hundred dollars to the Liberal Party of Canada in late 2006.

On paper, he maintains close ties to Victoria. The registration for his company, Eunoia Technologies, lists his home address as a home near Victoria that was owned by his parents until they sold it last year, according to a neighbour. The five-bedroom executive home, at the end of a private cul-de-sac was listed last year for $2.5-million.

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His father, a doctor practising at a walk-in medical clinic, declined to speak to a Globe and Mail reporter.

In 2008, Mr. Wylie went to work as a parliamentary assistant to then-Liberal MP Keith Martin, a physician who knew Mr. Wylie’s parents.

“I knew Chris, essentially before he was born, because his parents were both really wonderful physicians who interned the year before I did in Victoria,” Dr. Martin recalled in a phone interview Monday. “Chris was a young man who was involved in the young Liberals in Victoria and expressed an interest – as some do – to find out what Parliament’s like and volunteered in my office.”

At 17, he went to work for the Liberal Party of Canada under then-leader Stéphane Dion. A Liberal political staffer who requested anonymity recalled Mr. Wylie as a well-dressed young man whose insistence that the party should be microtargeting voters − leveraging data to target small segments of the population with political messaging − was ignored.

Mr. Wylie moved to Britain in 2010 at 20 to study law at the London School of Economics. While there, he put his talents to use with the Liberal Democrats.

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Mr. Wylie devised a new way of using information to target potential supporters, but the party wasn’t interested. A party contact introduced him to SCL Elections, the company that would eventually court Mr. Wylie for his data expertise and spawn Cambridge Analytica, according to The Observer.

Soon, his work began earning recognition back home.

In 2012, Brian Gold, then a federal Liberal Party executive for Edmonton-Spruce Grove, wrote an internal paper for the party that called for work on microtargeting, citing research by “Chris Wylie, Strategic Telemetry, Canada, U.S. and the U.K. and Australia.”

Mr. Wylie left Cambridge Analytica before it joined the Trump campaign. Since then, according to The Observer, he’s been “lying low in Canada: guilty, brooding, indignant, confused.”

With reports from Paul Waldie, Justine Hunter, James Keller, Colin Freeze, Sunny Dhillon, Stephanie Chambers, Bill Curry and Robert Fife

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