Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
Christopher Wylie testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 16, warning of âresegregation of society thatâs catalyzed by algorithmsâ and speaking at length about how Cambridge Analytica exploited Americans on Facebook.
Wylie, the whistleblower who helped exposeÂ Cambridge AnalyticaâsÂ exploitation of 87 million Facebook usersâ data, hadÂ met privatelyÂ with House Democrats last month but the Republican majority refused to allow anÂ open hearing. He has testified beforeÂ Parliament in the U.K.,Â but yesterdayâs hearing was Wylieâs first public appearance in the U.S. He spoke about Cambridge Analyticaâs U.S. election work, theÂ systemic failuresÂ 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 Analyticaâs practices that will likely be adopted by other entities, such asÂ voter suppressionÂ ads andÂ predictive algorithms.
If you need a refresher on the Cambridge Analytica story, Wylieâs opening statement is worth a watch:
Before Wylieâs exposÃ©, Cambridge Analytica was understood as a data company that billed itself as a political consulting firm. The company,Â foundedÂ by right-wing megadonor Robert Mercer, hadÂ political clientsÂ in the U.S. and around the world; it did work for President Donald Trumpâs campaign, Ted Cruzâs presidential campaign, current national security adviser John Boltonâs super PAC, and more. Following Wylieâs exposÃ©, more information was revealed about the firm: Its leadership wasÂ caught on cameraÂ selling services including bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers. It gave aÂ sales presentationÂ about disrupting elections to a Russian oligarch in 2014. And the firmÂ reached outÂ to WikiLeaks in 2016 offering to help distribute then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clintonâs emails. Following these revelations, Cambridge AnalyticaÂ shut downÂ (though there areÂ serious questionsÂ about that). In short, the data breach didnât just expose Facebook user data to a political consulting firm; it exposed it to a company whose motivations arenât clear and whose full operations arenât yet known. The same goes for Cambridgeâs parent company,Â SCL Group.
During the hearing, senators asked Wylie about Cambridge Analyticaâs 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, mirroringÂ right-wing mediaâs responseÂ to the data breach.
For his part, Wylie called out Cambridge Analytica for contributing to the âresegregation of society thatâs catalyzed by algorithms.â He was specifically referring to voter suppression ads, digital ads that attempt to discourage peopleÂ from voting. The Trump campaignÂ braggedÂ 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 companyâs 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. WylieÂ respondedÂ that thereâs 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 theÂ 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, butÂ its tacticsÂ could become commonplace in future elections.
While we can hope America listened to Wylie, itâs 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 isÂ to continueÂ pressuring the tech giants. After all, itâs Facebook and similar companies that enabled Cambridge Analytica in the first place.
Additional research by Alex Kaplan