Christopher Wylie

Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower Tells Senators That Firm Was Indication Of 'New Cold War Online'

May 16, 2018 - 3:41 pm
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WASHINGTON (WCBS 880/CBS News) -- Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

Wylie, who provided multiple reports about how the London-based data firm misused Facebook data of as many as 87 million people during the 2016 election, testified as part of a congressional probe into data privacy and security.

Read Wylie's Testimony Here

The revelations have since forced the social media titan and other tech companies to reevaluate how they manage user data.

During the three-hour-long hearing, Wylie provided new details into the firm's more controversial practices, including discussions of voter suppression, targeting African-American voters, and testing of slogans in 2014 that would be later used throughout the Trump campaign in 2016.

The whistleblower told lawmakers that former vice president of Cambridge Analytica Steve Bannon, an ally to President Donald Trump, "saw cultural warfare as the means to create enduring change in American politics."

"The company learned that 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 reflected in mainstream polling or mainstream political discourse that Steve Bannon was interested in to help build his movement," Wylie told lawmakers. He said that under Bannon's leadership at Cambridge Anlaytica, U.S. clients could request testing voter suppression efforts in their contracts.

"Steve Bannon is a follower of something called the 'Breitbart doctrine' which posits that politics is downstream from culture. So if you want any lasting or enduring changes in politics you have to focus on the culture. When Steve Bannon uses the term culture war, he uses that term pointedly and they were seeking out companies that could build an arsenal of informational weapons to fight that war," he added.

When pressed on how the firm targeted black voters, Wylie said that Cambridge Analytica would target anybody with "characteristics that would lead them to vote for the Democratic Party, particularly African-American voters."

Besides targeting black voters, Wylie says that Cambridge Analytica created videos that he described as "sadistic and Islamophobic"

Wylie said that Cambridge Analytica was looking to "exploit certain vulnerabilities in certain segments to send them information that will remove them from the public forum, and feed them conspiracies and they'll never see mainstream media."

"We have destroyed the public forum," he added.

Wylie said he did not believe the practices were acceptable.

"Traditional marketing doesn't misappropriate tens of millions of people's data, and it is not or should not be targeted at people's mental state like neuroticism and paranoia, or racial biases," urged Wylie.

Among those asking questions was U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut). Blumenthal told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott that he was alarmed by many of the revelations.

“What so impressed and alarmed me was practices taken for granted by Cambridge Analytica – suppressing voter turnout, and targeting them with messages that could be racist or otherwise offensive,” he said. “The invasion of privacy in harvesting or collecting information that Facebook (was) inadvertently or purposely providing. This kind of misuse and abuse of data is so deeply concerning , and I am going to be proposing measures that will help protect consumers from this kind of abuse.”

Wylie also noted the connections between Cambridge Analytica's research and projects to Russian entities were cause of great concern to him. He pointed to connections with Moscow-based Lukoil, testifying that Cambridge Analytica made presentations and sent documents to Lukoil on its experience in disinformation and rumor campaigns.

"The company had engaged contractors who had previously worked in Eastern Europe for pro-Russian parties and indeed the company decided to test Americans views on the leadership style of Vladmir Putin and American views on Eastern European issues relating to Russian expansionism," Wylie added.

"There was a lot of contact with Russian companies that made it known this research was being done," Wylie added, saying "a lot of noise was being made to companies and individuals who were connected to the Russian government."

Wylie testified that the lead researcher that managed the Facebook harvesting project for Cambridge Analytica was at the time working on projects that related to "psychological profiling in Russia with Russian teams."

Blumenthal said the revelations about Russia showed there was “clearly an effort to manipulate and interfere” with the 2016 election on Russia’s part, using data that came from sources such as Cambridge Analytica.

“There’s a need for more investigation, and no doubt the special counsel is doing it, to determine exactly how and when and who provided that information to the Russians. But clearly, they used big data, and very personal, confidential information, to target voters with messages that were designed to elicit responses; to misinform and distort; and also to suppress voting,” he said. “Clearly, the message from today’s hearing was the Russians misused and abused the data collected by companies like Facebook to manipulate and interfere with our elections in 2016.”

Wylie also warned that Cambridge Analytica was “the canary in the coal mine, to a new Cold War emerging online. He said "data is the new electricity of our new economy" adding that "we can't escape data."

Blumenthal said it was even worse than a “new Cold War,” particularly when it comes to Russian interference.

“We are in more than a cold war. It is an active, hot war involving cyber and data and the use of social media to interfere with elections, which the Russians will continue to do – in fact, they’re doing it right now, and they will do it in the next election, 2018, if they pay no price for malignly and malevolently interfering with our election in 2016,” he said.

But given that Russia does not seem to mind sanction and continues its interference anyway, Blumenthal said other measures must be taken.

“This administration has been inexplicably reluctant to impose severe and stringent sanctions that make Russia pay a price. It also has failed to call out and highlight what the Russians have done publicly. It must raise the awareness of the American public, sound the alarm, and institute measures through Facebook that will impose stronger protections – and one way is to do as the Europeans are doing – data privacy and protection measures that forbid the use of this data, but also to fight back in the cyber world as we are increasingly doing,” he said.

As for his own recommendations for moving forward, Wylie stressed the need for public oversight over user data. He said the issue of privacy should be taken as seriously as other national security issues.

"When you look at industries that are important -- cars, food, medicine, nuclear power, airlines, we have rules that require safety and put consumers first," said Wylie.

He urged that in the 21st century, it's "nearly impossible to be functional in the workplace and society at large without the internet."

(© 2018 WCBS 880. CBS News contributed to this report.)