Working for Cambridge Analytica "felt very much like a privatised colonising operation," the former staffer at the centre of the scandal around Facebook data slurps and Vote Leave's alleged overspend has said.
Speaking to MPs today, Chris Wylie, the pink-haired whistleblower with a knack for flamboyant and quotable phrases, made a series of explosive allegations that ranged from the believable to the stuff of conspiracy theorists.
It was less than 10 minutes into a three-hour hearing in front of the UK's House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee before the session descended into what can only be described as lurid gossip about the death of Wylie's predecessor, Dan Muresa.
Wylie, who acknowledged he was repeating no more than pure speculation, told MPs that Muresa was poisoned in his hotel room after a deal went sour and that police were bribed not to enter for 24 hours.
The session - which committee chair Damian Collins said was the longest single-panel hearing they’d held - was part of the committee's inquiry into fake news, but has become subsumed by the ongoing controversy surrounding apps' use of Facebook users' data for military-style psy-ops.
The encounter, held just as the committee was knocked back by Zuck, saw star witness Wylie level a series of allegations about his the former company, its parent biz SCL Group and another political advertising biz, AggregateIQ, which he broadly accused of behaving unethically.
He also claimed that a coordinated effort between groups campaigning for the UK to leave the EU (which have been accused of over-spending) had swayed the result of the referendum.
Wylie said his reasons for coming clean was that he didn’t think “military style information operations is conducive for any democratic process, whether a US presidential or a local council race.”
When asked if he wanted to bring the companies he had worked for down, he replied: "Frankly, yes. Nothing good has come from Cambridge Analytica. It's not a legitimate business. SCL is not a legitimate business. So, yes, I don't think they should remain in business."
Summarising his feelings about the companies and execs, Wylie said that they don’t care whether or what they do is legal, as long as it gets the job done.
'There are a lot of reasons I find the company problematic'
His politically charged statements included that the business was “an example of what modern-day colonialism looks like,” alleging that it uses coercion and methods well beyond simple psychological profiling of Facebook users, to influence campaigns around the world.
Wylie said that Nix had a standard pitch that relied on his company’s Mayfair offices and his Eton education, which presents a very posh veneer and plays well in the Commonwealth countries the business targets.
“[It’s] a wealthy company from a developed nation going into an economy or democracy that’s still struggling to get on its feet on the ground and taking advantage of that to profit from it,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons I find the company problematic… It’s not just the data.”
Later in the session, Wylie said that part of SCL’s business model was to “capture a government” in such a way that it had access to ministers.
After that, they could start exploiting relationships and the fact that there’s not a lot of oversight in some African countries to introduce minsters to a company, so they made a deal and get a cut of that deal, Wylie recounted. The key thing, he said, was “you have to have your guy in power first.”
Cambridge Analytica has already denied allegations of wrongdoing in other nations. The firm has been accused of setting up ‘honey traps’ and sub-contracting former spies to help swing elections, after Nix was caught on Channel 4’s cameras bigging up what his firm could offer beyond data crunching to a person posing as a Sri Lankan businessman.
After suspending Nix, the biz issued a statement to say instead that it “undertakes conversations with prospective clients to try to tease out any unethical or illegal intentions”.
AggregateIQ, GSR, Palantir… Any more firms to mention?
The web of organisations and people getting sucked into the scandal is growing rapidly, and MPs used the session to try and tease apart some of the who-knew-what-when, although Cambridge Analytica has tried to argue that Wylie doesn’t have the knowledge he claims.
“Christopher Wylie was a part-time contractor who left in July 2014 and has no direct knowledge of our work or practices since that date,” the biz said during its live-tweeted rebuttals to his evidence.
Nonetheless, Wylie offered up his view of how things had gone down, including that Canadian political ad firm AggregateIQ - who official Brexit campaign Vote Leave spent £3m (about 40 per cent of their campaign budget) on - could be linked to CA’s parent biz SCL.
Wylie claimed that he had introduced Jeff Silvester, co-founder of AIQ, to Nix, and that this resulted in AIQ being set up as what the whistleblower referred to as a Canadian franchise.
AIQ, he said, built the Ripon platform that CA then used for its data analytics work, citing as evidence recent reports that code uploaded to GitHub showed SCL had asked for the code to be transferred to AIQ.
AIQ has issued a statement saying it has “never been and is not a part of Cambridge Analytica or SCL”, has “never entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytica” (although it makes no mention, or denial, of a contract with SCL) and has “never knowingly been involved in any illegal activity.”
Wylie, though, said it is farcical to say AIQ didn’t have access to this data. He insisted that the biz must have had access to the data in question, arguing that this would have been a necessity if it was to develop the targeting software for SCL and CA.
“Cambridge Analytica would have the database, and AIQ would be able to access that, or the software doesn’t work,” he said.
Elsewhere in the session, Wylie claimed that Peter Thiel’s data analytics biz Palantir - whose largest client is the NSA - helped build the models they were working on at Cambridge Analytica.
Wylie said that the firms were introduced because Sophie Schmidt - daughter of Google’s Eric - worked with Nix and introduced him to Palantir; a claim Nix has previously refuted.