Title Social media giants should be forced to reveal political ad details, whistle-blower tells MPs - The Globe and Mail

Publication Date 2018-05-29

Text Open this photo in gallery Whistle-blower Christopher Wylie speaks in London, on March 26, 2018. Alastair Grant/The Canadian Press

The Canadian whistle-blower at the centre of the Cambridge Analytica scandal says social media giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter should be forced to disclose all details related to political advertising.

Christopher Wylie told MPs on Tuesday that this “simple solution” would go a long way toward addressing nefarious uses of social media in politics such as targeted ads.

“The problem with targeting is that rather than standing in [a] public forum, you are going to each individual voter and whispering something in their ear,” he said. “In many cases, what you’re whispering is something you’d be happy to say in that public forum, and in some cases it may not be.”

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Mr. Wylie provided sworn testimony to the House of Commons Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on Tuesday by video link from London. The committee is studying how Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that is part of the SCL Group of companies based in the U.K., improperly obtained the personal data of 87 million Facebook users.

Mr. Wylie launched an international controversy this year over Facebook’s approach to data privacy after he revealed that a personality app was used in an unauthorized way to harvest information on millions of Facebook users for political campaign targeting.

The data specialist explained that while any advertiser can easily aim Facebook ads at particular demographics, an advertiser with a database of specific individuals can bring it to Facebook and buy ads targeted directly at them. Facebook calls this “custom audiences” advertising.

Mr. Wylie was raised in British Columbia and worked briefly on Parliament Hill for federal Liberal politicians when the party was in opposition. He then moved to Britain, and joined SCL Group in 2013. He told MPs he encouraged his Victoria-based contacts Zack Massingham and Jeff Sylvester to work for SCL, which they did indirectly through contracts after forming a company called AggregateIQ.

The Victoria-based firm received large contracts from groups involved in Vote Leave during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign.

British investigators are looking into whether the advertising contracts to AIQ were designed to get around campaign-expense laws.

In a May 14 letter to the U.K. Electoral Commission, Facebook provided details on ad purchases by Vote Leave and another pro-Brexit group, BeLeave.

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Facebook said AIQ placed about US$2-million worth of custom audience ads on behalf of Vote Leave and BeLeave using a database named “50million_remains.”

Last month, Mr. Massingham and Mr. Sylvester told Canadian MPs they did nothing wrong and simply helped the Vote Leave campaign place ads on Facebook.

Mr. Wylie challenged AIQ’s defence, noting that simply placing ads on Facebook to target demographics, rather than specific individuals, could be done by an intern.

“To me, that’s just farcical as an explanation,” Mr. Wylie said. “Frankly, I’m surprised and really disappointed that Jeff Sylvester and Zack Massingham have decided to try to obfuscate or hide what happened. ... They had every opportunity to participate in blowing the whistle and they decided not to.”

Conservative MP Peter Kent used most of his time on Tuesday to ask Mr. Wylie about his connections to the federal Liberals and whether he ever targeted Canadian voters based on psychological traits. Mr. Wylie said a $100,000 contract he received from the Liberal Research Bureau in 2016 – shortly after the party formed government – was to help the bureau set up systems to track feedback from constituents, including on platforms like Twitter.

“I did not work on a project related to psychographic targeting for the Liberal Party and that’s the end of it,” he said.

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