When Christopher Wylie finished up at his prep school in Victoria, he wrote down his ambitions in a yearbook.
The teen held up the former Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson as a personal idol as he expressed hopes of becoming a “statesman” on Parliament Hill. And if that didn’t pan out, he quipped that he would simply work as a “smear merchant peddling backroom hackery in its most Machiavellian form.”
Just over a decade later, Mr. Wylie is world-renowned as a whistle-blower regretting the work he once did. The 28-year-old political consultant came forward this spring, making global headlines as the Canadian who once made what he called “psychological warfare tools” for some Machiavellian far-right political figures in the United States.
After testifying to this in Britain and the United States, Mr. Wylie may also appear before a Canadian legislative committee later this month. His tale will centre on how he helped build a company known as Cambridge Analytica, which was officially shuttered this week following Mr. Wylie’s many allegations against it. (Its parent company, a sprawling entity known as the SCL Group, is still in operation.)
Political hackery is a pejorative term for paid partisan work carried out without regard to ethics, and Mr. Wylie has said he did a lot of it during his year with the Cambridge Analytica corporate family. Five years ago, after moving to London to study fashion and law, Mr. Wylie was hired as an independent consultant who could help the company work at social-media “psychographics” – essentially, using technology to garner real-time insights into the hopes and fears hidden inside hundreds of millions of people’s heads.
The hope was that such insights could craft social-media advertisements that might swing some elections. Mr. Wylie says he laid the groundwork for some deeply questionable movements of money, data and social-media messaging that followed his time at Cambridge Analytica; the consultancy went on to sell its services to the winning sides of some high-stakes squeaker votes, including the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. presidential election
Key to all this, Mr. Wylie now alleges, was a Facebook data set he helped surreptitiously acquire in the summer of 2014. That was when a British professor’s downloadable psychological survey app was put to use as a kind of Trojan horse which, Mr. Wylie has said, helped political consultants like him stay hidden as the data was passed along. Some 87 million users, who had wrongly believed their personal data to be protected by Facebook, had details of their lives plundered for political uses.
One intriguing, and largely untold facet of this story, involves a contemporaneously created consultancy called Eunoia Technologies – so named for the Greek work for “beautifully thought.”
Corporate records show that on June 12, 2014, Mr. Wylie registered the company in Delaware even as he based it at his parents’ home on Vancouver Island. This was the same month that the Facebook data was acquired.
Eunoia was apparently intended as Mr. Wylie’s first step away from the world of political consulting. According to a document, he appears to have wanted a corporate vehicle to do more benign work – such as selling fast fashion, maybe, or even just Justin Bieber records. The expressed hope was that the client list could change, but his techniques would not necessarily need to.
“No company has yet figured out how to en masse psychologically profile individuals,” reads a “brand-identity brief” created for the Eunoia Technologies as it was started up that summer. Reviewed by The Globe and Mail, this memo and related materials expressed hopes that Eunoia could start out by selling its data services to the advertising arms of clothing retailers like H&M or Burberry, or record companies representing artists such as Mr. Bieber or Tegan and Sara. In a recent interview, Mr. Wylie has recently spoke about how his “ever-ongoing unfinished PhD is [on] machine learning for fashion.”
But Big Data can sound spooky to the uninitiated. So the 2014 brand-identity brief avowed that certain words would not be part of Eunoia’s corporate lexicon. “We absolutely do NOT want to be perceived as a data company,” it reads. It went on to lay out a bullet-point list of banned, “creepy” terms – “scraping,” “data mining” and “psychometric, psychosocial, psycho-anything” – from any future corporate correspondence.
Despite statements like that, a conceptual diagram shows Eunoia would rely on a database that would compile “hundreds of millions” of people’s names, genders, birthdays, and personality-trait scores. Less conventional descriptors like “fashion-style type” and “musical preference” were to be thrown into the mix, too. “The core product we are building is an online platform that uses a large consumer database ... [that] is extremely expansive and has data on the lifestyle, psychographics, demographics, buying habits, personal tastes and online viewing for over 160 million individual consumers in the USA,” reads that memo.
The materials reviewed by The Globe do not make clear where any this data would come from. But today, Mr. Wylie’s lawyer says that he never misused any material from Facebook.
“Mr. Wylie regrets his involvement with CA [Cambridge Analytica],” said his lawyer, Tamsin Allen, adding that he has been co-operating with investigations. Responding in an e-mail to The Globe’s questions, she said that her client “never sold the Facebook data in question and he did indeed destroy it in 2015.”
He did buy some unrelated material from U.S. data brokers who are lawfully allowed to sell information about tens of millions of people at once, she said.
Now some of the people who allege that Mr. Wylie has smeared them have been pointing their fingers back at his consultancy. “When he left, he set up a competing company called Eunoia Technologies, apparently using our data and contacts,” Cambridge Analytica wrote in an April 9 statement , which painted him as a jilted former business partner.
Facebook banned Mr. Wylie from its platform this spring as it investigates how the data set of 87 million people may have moved around. In his April 10 testimony to the U.S. Congress, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stated this explicitly, saying Cambridge University professor Aleksandr Kogan “sold it to a couple of other firms … there’s one called Eunoia.”
It is not clear whether Mr. Wylie’s consultancy promoted any fashion or music, but recently revealed records have shown that he returned to political consulting. In 2016, he unsuccessfully pitched his services to a pro-Brexit faction but did land a $100,000 contract from a Canadian legislative entity he used to work for as a teenager.
Why exactly did Mr. Wylie decide to blow up his entrepreneurial ambitions and blow a whistle about alleged dirty tricks in data ? It’s unclear. But in his yearbook entry from Glenlyon Norfolk School in Victoria, he did say his favourite quote came from Winston Churchill: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
With files from Stephanie Chambers