Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
Christopher Wylie testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 16, warning of “resegregation of society that’s catalyzed by algorithms” and speaking at length about how Cambridge Analytica exploited Americans on Facebook.
Wylie, the whistleblower who helped expose Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of 87 million Facebook users’ data, had met privately with House Democrats last month but the Republican majority refused to allow an open hearing. He has testified before Parliament in the U.K., but yesterday’s hearing was Wylie’s first public appearance in the U.S. He spoke about Cambridge Analytica’s U.S. election work, the systemic failures of tech companies that led to the data breach, and what the future holds if said failures remain unaddressed. Wylie emphasized that Americans are simply unable to opt out of using the internet and that regulation is the only protection available. Senators on the committee asked Wylie about some of Cambridge Analytica’s practices that will likely be adopted by other entities, such as voter suppression ads and predictive algorithms.
If you need a refresher on the Cambridge Analytica story, Wylie’s opening statement is worth a watch:
Before Wylie’s exposé, Cambridge Analytica was understood as a data company that billed itself as a political consulting firm. The company, founded by right-wing megadonor Robert Mercer, had political clients in the U.S. and around the world; it did work for President Donald Trump’s campaign, Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, current national security adviser John Bolton’s super PAC, and more. Following Wylie’s exposé, more information was revealed about the firm: Its leadership was caught on camera selling services including bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers. It gave a sales presentation about disrupting elections to a Russian oligarch in 2014. And the firm reached out to WikiLeaks in 2016 offering to help distribute then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails. Following these revelations, Cambridge Analytica shut down (though there are serious questions about that). In short, the data breach didn’t just expose Facebook user data to a political consulting firm; it exposed it to a company whose motivations aren’t clear and whose full operations aren’t yet known. The same goes for Cambridge’s parent company, SCL Group.
During the hearing, senators asked Wylie about Cambridge Analytica’s work in the U.S. as well as data privacy and social media issues. Many Democratic members tried to get information about Cambridge Analytica and any potential work it did with the Russian government. Republican members attempted to portray Cambridge Analytica as a data firm doing what similar firms in the space do and suggested the concern was perhaps overblown, mirroring right-wing media’s response to the data breach.
For his part, Wylie called out Cambridge Analytica for contributing to the “resegregation of society that’s catalyzed by algorithms.” He was specifically referring to voter suppression ads, digital ads that attempt to discourage people from voting. The Trump campaign bragged about targeting voter suppression ads to Black voters on Facebook just days before the 2016 election. Wylie confirmed that Cambridge Analytica offered voter suppression ads and that the company’s decision to explore voter suppression ads was part of what led him to leave.
Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Coons (D-DE), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) all discussed voter suppression ads with Wylie:
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked Wylie about Immigration and Customs Enforcement now using predictive algorithms such as those Cambridge Analytica used to detect potential criminals. Wylie responded that there’s no algorithm that could predict if someone is a bad person, but that an algorithm could confirm biases built in by programmers.
Also of note: Two committee members asking questions at the hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), were former clients of Cambridge Analytica. Tillis disclosed this former association. Cruz did not.
Wylie is an important messenger on both Cambridge Analytica and the societal problems that let such a company operate. The firm is no more, but its tactics could become commonplace in future elections.
While we can hope America listened to Wylie, it’s highly unlikely that Congress will pass any meaningful legislation or regulation to address the concerns he raised before the midterms. Our best course of action is to continue pressuring the tech giants. After all, it’s Facebook and similar companies that enabled Cambridge Analytica in the first place.
Additional research by Alex Kaplan