A whistleblower told a U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday that data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, which accessed data from millions of Facebook users, also broke into computer systems to get access to information and mined data to discourage voters, particularly African-Americans, from participating in elections.
Christopher Wylie, a research director at Cambridge Analytica from 2013 to 2014, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the firm, co-founded by Steve Bannon, who was campaign manager and later a top White House strategist for President Donald Trump, came up with phrases like “drain the swamp” that became key campaign themes and slogans.
At the hearing, dubbed “Cambridge Analytica and the Future of Data Privacy,” Wylie said he left Cambridge Analytica after the firm began discussions about persuading voters not to get involved.
“Data is powerful and if it’s put in the wrong hands, it becomes a weapon,” he said. “And we have to understand that companies like Facebook, and platforms like Facebook or Twitter, are not just social networking sites. They’re opportunities for information warfare.”
The Senate testimony came a day after the New York Times reported that the FBI and Justice Department had begun investigations of Cambridge Analytica. British officials also have opened criminal investigations.
No one from Cambridge Analytica was at the hearing. Its United Kingdom-based parent company announced plans this month to shut down and declare bankruptcy. Wylie insisted he had done nothing wrong.
But he wanted the Senate panel to know that Cambridge Analytica was no ordinary marketing firm.
“Cambridge Analytica sought to identify mental vulnerabilities in voters and worked to exploit them by targeting information designed to activate some of the worst characteristics in people, such as neuroticism, paranoia and racial biases,” Wylie said. “The company learned that there were segments of the population that responded to messages like ‘drain the swamp’ or images of walls or indeed paranoia about the ‘deep state’ that weren’t necessarily always reflected in mainstream polling or mainstream political discourse that Steve Bannon was interested in using to build his movement,” Wylie said.
“When Steve Bannon uses the term ‘culture war,’” he added, “he uses that term pointedly, and they were seeking out companies that could build an arsenal of informational weapons to fight that war.”
The hearing is the second involving Facebook’s disclosures that Cambridge Analytica may have stolen the personal information of 50 million of its users as part of a software application called “thisisyourdigitallife.” In March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared on Capitol Hill, apologizing that his company “didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility.”
On Monday, Facebook announced it had suspended 200 software applications that, like Cambridge Analytica, may have inappropriately used the data of its users. Facebook also faces more than 35 class actions by consumers and investors over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“It is clear from Mr. Wylie’s testimony and other reports that CA [Cambridge Analytica] set out to help those who wanted to exploit ‘neuroticism, paranoia, and racial biases’ in American elections,” said Robert Lopez, a partner at Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro in Seattle. “But what’s terribly unfortunate is that Facebook’s failure to protect its users’ data is what enabled CA to gather enormous amounts of information for these purposes.”
Several Republican panel members, and another witness, Mark Jamison, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of the Public Utility Research Center at the University of Florida, pointed out that the Obama administration already had refined the use of Facebook and other social media data during the 2012 election.
But others questioned whether Facebook users were aware that their data was being used for such purposes, and whether the terms of service outlined on the social media site were clear enough.
“In the real world, this would be like someone following you every single day as you walk down the street, watching what you do, where you go, for how long, and with whom,” said U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California. “For most people, it would feel like an invasion of privacy, and they’d call the cops. And yes, social network sites technically lay all this out in their terms of service. But let’s be honest: Few Americans can decipher or understand what this contract means. “
Eitan Hersh, a political science professor at Tufts University and another witness at the hearing, questioned whether the data actually influenced elections or whether Facebook was all that important.
“I don’t hold the view that Facebook is somehow necessary for our lives,” he told the panel.
Many panel members asked whether Cambridge Analytica had provided data to Russian operatives or worked with WikiLeaks. Wylie testified that Cambridge Analytica worked with a Russian oil company and hired staffers with connections to WikiLeaks. He also said he knew about internal documents referencing specialized intelligence services in Russia.
“What I can say is a lot of noise was being made to companies and individuals who were connected to the Russian government and, for me, that is of substantial concern,” Wylie said.