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Facebook whistle-blower Christopher Wylie says company not taking enough action on data concerns

Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower who formerly worked with Cambridge Analytica, speaks at the Frontline Club in London on Tuesday.

HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

The Canadian whistleblower behind the scandal swirling around Facebook has spoken out about the social media giant, saying the company is unfairly attacking him instead of addressing fundamental problems about its misuse of data. Christopher Wylie also suggested on Tuesday that the company he helped create, Cambridge Analytica, worked with Russian officials who could have easily used the firm’s information to undermine elections in the West.

Dressed in a sweatshirt and running shoes, and sporting pink hair and a nose ring, Mr. Wylie looked somewhat uncomfortable at his sudden notoriety. He insisted that he was never out to get Facebook. “I’m not on a crusade against Facebook,” Mr. Wylie, 28, told about 200 people at a journalism event in London, England.

He added that he tried to work with Facebook to address some of the issues he has raised, but the company has instead tried to make him the culprit. “The frustrating thing for me is that the story has really spiralled into Facebook’s bizarre reaction to it,” he said, adding that Facebook has deleted him from the site and made it impossible for him to use other Facebook-owned platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp. “This is the power that Facebook has,” he said. “They can delete you off of the internet. ... The thing that I have come to really understand very personally is the very intimate and personal power that Facebook has in your life.”

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Mr. Wylie has been at the centre of a growing scandal since coming forward in the Observer newspaper last weekend with allegations that Cambridge Analytica managed to get hold of information from at least 50 million Facebook users with the help of a Russian professor based at Cambridge University. Cambridge Analytica worked closely with the campaign of U.S. President Donald Trump and his former campaign chief Steven Bannon. Mr. Wylie’s revelations have sent Facebook’s share price tumbling and sparked investigations in the United States and Britain. On Tuesday, Cambridge Analytica suspended chief executive Alexander Nix. Facebook has suspended Mr. Wylie and Cambridge Analytica and accused both of improperly gathering data.

The acting democratic institutions minister says the Liberals are 'open' to ideas on strengthening privacy laws after reports Facebook user data was used for political gain. The Canadian Press

Mr. Wylie, who grew up in Victoria and later moved to London, became interested in studying how personality traits could be used in political campaigns while working with the Liberal Democrats. That work brought him into contact in 2013 with Mr. Nix, who was running a London-based company called SCL Group whose clients were mainly military-related.

“When I was there, one of the bread-and-butter things of the company … was rumour campaigns and undermining people’s confidence in civic institutions so that they don’t trust the results,” he said, referring to SCL.

Before long, Mr. Wylie met Mr. Bannon, who enjoyed speaking with him about SCL’s technology and meeting students, mainly at Cambridge, Mr. Wylie said. Mr. Nix was so eager to win over Mr. Bannon that SCL created a fake office near Cambridge University. That led to the creation of Cambridge Analytica, which Mr. Bannon named to help branch the company out from military work and into political campaigns.

Mr. Wylie arrives at the Frontline Club in London on Tuesday. 'The frustrating thing for me is that the story has really spiralled into Facebook’s bizarre reaction to it,' Mr. Wylie says.

HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

Mr. Bannon recruited billionaire Robert Mercer to help fund the new enterprise. Mr. Wylie said the combination of Mr. Bannon’s right-wing cause and Mr. Mercer’s intelligence and money proved a powerful mix. Mr. Wylie said he was given about US$20-million to launch Cambridge Analytica, which was incorporated in the United States to meet campaign rules but was essentially run out of SCL’s office in London.

The company eventually hooked up with Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge professor who created a Facebook app called thisisyourdigitallife, which enticed users to answer questions for a psychological profile. However, the app also gained access to the users’ Facebook friends, multiplying the database exponentially. Mr. Kogan’s company turned over the data to Cambridge Analytica, which began using it in the United States, Mr. Wylie said. Mr. Kogan has denied wrongdoing.

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'In my view, if you’ve done something wrong, the first step is to try to own up and tell people about it,' Mr. Wylie says.

HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

Cambridge Analytica also worked for Russia’s Lukoil, a major oil company that is on the U.S. sanctions list and has ties to the Kremlin. Mr. Wylie said he wrote reports about the company’s work for Lukoil’s executives who wanted to know more about the company’s data sets and algorithms. Lukoil has denied using the information for political purposes and Mr. Wylie said he has no direct proof that it did. However, he said Cambridge Analytica made it easy for that to happen by working with a Russian professor and sharing data openly with a Russian company with links to the Kremlin.

Mr. Wylie said he finally became fed up with Cambridge Analytica in 2014 when he began to understand the scope of Mr. Bannon’s and Mr. Mercer’s political leanings. He said the atmosphere became toxic and that he got tired of the “psycho candidates” the two men backed.

He added that while he left the company with a trove of documents, he didn’t set out to become a whistle-blower. But he now regrets his actions and has been working with officials in Britain for months.

“In my view, if you’ve done something wrong, the first step is to try to own up and tell people about it. I’m on my first step, so I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” he said.

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