Whistleblower Christopher Wylie warned senators Wednesday that the data privacy controversy surrounding his former employer, Cambridge Analytica, is the “canary in the coal mine to a new Cold War emerging online,” as he detailed a series of alleged activities by the now-defunct company.
Wylie, a source for news reports indicating that Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained data on tens of millions of Facebook users, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in written testimony that the data firm and its parent, SCL, had the ability to perform “black ops,” including breaking into computer systems to acquire kompromat — the Russian word for "compromising material."
He also said two senior staffers for Cambridge Analytica had connections to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, having served as aides to former Assange lawyer John Jones in London. And he laid out Cambridge Analytica's alleged links to Russia, saying the company used Russian researchers, shared information with Russian companies and executives tied to the Russian intelligence, "pitched Russian-led profiling projects to its other clients" and referred to hiring former Russian intelligence agents in internal documents.
Wylie's testimony to U.S. lawmakers is the latest sign of congressional interest in the ongoing data scandal, which first emerged in March with reports that Cambridge Analytica, which did work for Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, improperly obtained data on millions of Facebook users — as many as 87 million at last count — through an academic researcher.
Since then, Wylie has dribbled out additional revelations in media interviews and briefed House Democrats last month, telling them, among other things, that Steve Bannon, the Cambridge Analytica co-founder who went on to become Trump's campaign manager, had ordered the data firm's staff to test messaging around Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian expansion in 2014.
Republicans declined to participate in Wylie's earlier briefing for House members, but Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) invited Wylie to Wednesday's hearing, which is dedicated to the Cambridge Analytica controversy and the "future of data privacy."
Facebook has scrambled to respond to the scandal, which raised new questions about its commitment to user privacy and renewed scrutiny of its role in the election. The social network's normally press-averse CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, went into damage control mode, putting in a marathon appearance last month before multiple congressional committees and repeatedly apologizing for his company's handling of the situation.
Cambridge Analytica announced earlier this month it was shutting down, along with its parent SCL, and had started insolvency proceedings in both the U.S. and U.K.
But Wylie's message to Congress is that the tactics employed by Cambridge Analytica — which involved spreading violent and anti-Muslim images in one unnamed country, he said, in an effort to suppress voter turnout — should be thoroughly explored.
“If a foreign actor dropped propaganda leaflets by aeroplane over Florida or Michigan, that would universally be condemned a hostile act. But this is what is happening online,” Wylie told the committee. “We must address these issues before disinformation and information warfare become pervasive in American cyberspace.”