The academic connection
The MPs also asked Wylie about the relationship between CA and Global Science Research, the firm set up by Cambridge academic Aleksander Kogan, who devised the This is Your Digital Life app that is alleged to have sucked in 50 million Facebook users’ details to develop psychological profiles to target ads against.
Wylie said that the relationship began as a very small pilot to ask if data was matchable to an electoral register, followed by a bigger one to make sure it could actually acquire the data in the speed that he said and then a much larger contract in June 2014.
He described this data as the foundational dataset that CA modeled its algorithms on, and claimed that the biz had signed a $1m contract to get its hands on it - claims CA denied.
It was far from a $1M project. We paid $500K for the GSR data. Once Facebook told us it breached their terms, we deleted the data and we pursued GSR for damages.— Cambridge Analytica (@CamAnalytica) March 27, 2018
The biz said that once Facebook had said that it had breached their terms it had deleted the data and was able to move on without the GSR data by commissioning new surveys and investing in commercial datasets. “Our algorithms and models bear no trace of it,” CA said.
Wylie was also quizzed about the EU referendum, saying that he was absolutely convinced that there was a common plan between Vote Leave and the grassroots BeLeave and the Veterans for Britain groups, which Vote Leave allegedly funnelled money to AIQ through, along with the Democratic Union Party - which also used AIQ in the campaign.
“All of these companies somehow, for some reason, all decided to use AIQ,” he said, adding: "Why is it that all of a sudden, this company that has never worked on anything but Cambridge Analytica projects... somehow became the primary service provider to all of these supposedly independent campaign groups?"
Arguing that the concerted action was in breach of election law and was effectively cheating, he concluded: “It is completely reasonable to say that there could have been a different outcome in the referendum had there not been, in my view, cheating.”
He likened this to doping in the Olympics, saying that there is “not a debate about how much illegal drug you took… if you’re caught cheating you lose your medal”.
'I wasn't so devastated... I went on a vendetta'
Although Wylie was happy to opine on the importance of a true democratic process, he was comfortable when it came to his own involvement in the campaign, as MPs asked him about his approaches to Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings.
Wylie - who said he is in favour of Brexit, but not at the expense of the "integrity of the democratic process" - admits to having approached Cummings to offer his services ahead of the referendum (after he had left CA), but told MPs his proposal was a pilot" and nothing more.
Cummings has issued a number of rebuttals to Wylie's claims in recent days, with one arising as the committee hearing went on, which described Wylie as a charlatan.
The committee said perhaps this was unfair, but asked whether Wylie had tried and failed to follow in Nix's footsteps in setting up a similar firm "hawking your wares" to Vote Leave, but didn't get the deal.
"Yes, but I wasn't so devastated... you have lots of meetings and it doesn’t [always] work out," said Wylie, appearing at his most flustered.
"Sorry, Dom, I wasn't so devastated that I couldn’t work with you that I've spent a year and a half on a vendetta to get back at you for a pilot project that didn't work out."
The MPs also pressed Wylie on when he deleted his copy of the data, which he said he did in 2015, and then confirmed this to Facebook in 2016.
Wylie also said that - although Facebook only changed its policy to stop apps being able to suck up info on users' friends in 2015 - he believed Facebook knew about the situation back in 2014, when he said Kogan “was delayed for a couple of days because Facebook had throttled the app so it couldn’t pull as much data”.
This is in line with Facebook’s developers’ blog, which shows the firm was aware of the privacy issues related to the Graph API loophole, but gave developers a year’s grace period before closing the tap.
Wylie also claimed that Facebook didn’t want to make a big deal about the data that Kogan’s app had gathered when it was first made public in 2015 for fear of a PR backlash. He added that the most legal pushback he’d had was not from CA, but from Facebook.
“It’s Facebook that’s most upset about this story,” he said. “They sent some fairly intimidating legal correspondence. They haven’t taken action on that… They have gone silent, they won’t talk to me anymore.” ®