OTTAWA — The Canadian data scientist who admitted to helping political parties score electoral wins by exploiting the private information of millions of Facebook users also oversaw a short-lived pilot project for the federal Liberals shortly after the 2015 election, The Canadian Press has learned.
Christopher Wylie came forward in recent days with accusations that a voter-profiling company improperly harvested Facebook data from some 50 million users in order to help seal victories for the Trump campaign and in the U.K.’s Brexit referendum.
Wylie has insisted in interviews that he not only played a pivotal role in developing the data-mining technique, he also helped establish Cambridge Analytics, the firm at the heart of the controversy that was first revealed by The Guardian newspaper and the New York Times.
In January 2016, months before U.S. President Donald Trump’s win, Wylie pitched his services to the Liberal caucus research office, said a senior party source, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss details of a private meeting.
Even before the meeting, Wylie had experience working at the highest levels of the party.
From 2007 to 2009, he worked in the office of the Liberal leader, when the party was helmed by Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. He was also a member of the party’s youth commission.
Following the meeting, the Liberals signed a contract with Wylie in 2016 and he launched a pilot project, the source confirmed. The source would not provide further details on the nature of the contract or its duration, saying only that Wylie’s services were focused on “information management.”
After seeing what Wylie had to offer, the party chose not to proceed further with the project, said the source, who added that it’s not uncommon for political parties to try out the services of contractors for brief periods of time.
The contract was awarded in accordance with all the procurement rules, and at no time did Wylie have access to anyone’s personal data, the source added.
Earlier this week, The Canadian Press spoke with an acquaintance of Wylie’s who described having drinks with the data expert in Ottawa in November 2015, a few weeks after the federal election.
The acquaintance said Wylie talked about his plans to shop his Facebook data-mining techniques in the national capital, including with the Liberals, and also in Washington with the Republican party.
Wylie described using a Facebook survey as an entry point to collect user data, and the pair discussed the ethical concerns surrounding the method, said the acquaintance.
When asked about the party’s interactions with the data expert, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that a meeting took place between Wylie and the Liberal caucus research bureau in January 2016.
“Mr. Wylie did some preliminary work for the Liberal caucus research bureau but ultimately it was decided not to move forward with his services,” Chantal Gagnon said in a brief email.
By 2009, during Wylie’s stint working for the Liberal leader’s office, he had already begun to develop strategies on how politicians could capitalize on information collected through social media, another former Liberal insider said earlier this week.
At that time, Wylie was pushing a fledgling form of the data-harvesting technique, but the idea was considered too invasive and raised concerns with the Liberals, who decided they didn’t want anything to do with it and chose not to renew his contract, said the insider, who also discussed the matter only on condition of anonymity.
Wylie has not responded to interview requests by The Canadian Press.
The federal privacy commissioner has formally launched an investigation to determine whether any personal information of Canadians was affected by the alleged unauthorized access to Facebook user profiles.
Meanwhile, the Trudeau government is asking the Communications Security Establishment and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to take a closer look at the situation to better ensure the privacy rights of Canadians are protected.
Scott Brison, the acting minister for democratic institutions, said Tuesday he’d be open to strengthening federal privacy laws even further to better protect those who share their information online.
Facebook has denied the data collection was a breach because people knowingly provided their information. The company has said a University of Cambridge psychology professor accessed the information after he requested it from users who gave their consent when they chose to sign up for his test via a Facebook app.
Newspaper reports have said Facebook first learned of the data leak more than two years ago, but didn’t disclose it until now.
Cambridge Analytica has “strongly denied” the allegations that it had improperly obtained Facebook data.
The company has also insisted Wylie was a contractor, not a founder, as he has claimed. Wylie, a 28-year-old from British Columbia, left the firm in 2014.
Trump’s campaign has denied using the Cambridge Analytica’s data, saying it relied on the Republican National Committee for its information.
— with files from Associated Press
Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press