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Cheat sheet: Christopher Wylie

What don’t they want us to know? And other questions the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower has us asking about our personal data.

Susie Anderson
Sydney Opera House

Is it impossible to stay safe online? Can we still trust Facebook – or Google, or Instagram, or Snapchat? These are questions that have plagued us all. And not just technically and politically, but also philosophically.

In 2018, data scientist Christopher Wylie released a cache of documents revealing how Cambridge Analytica, his former employer, was involved in the illegal practice of harvesting data to target groups and influence political influence. This leak is part of the reason these questions have overtaken public debate.

For Wylie’s appearance at Antidote, we’ve put together a digital health check, a guide to some of the big questions about data, privacy, security and Facebook we should be asking ourselves – and the big tech companies – if we want to keep living our lives online.

How can I protect my data?

In the wake of all this information about our data and what tech companies are doing with it, there is a slow yet certain movement away from these platforms. Speaking at Byron Bay Writers Festival recently, former Greens Senator Scott Ludlam suggested that “data is the new oil”, that these technologies are political technologies, and that we need to catch up with appropriate legislature to protect ourselves. People are responding by leaving Facebook and the other major platforms in droves, seeking alternative modes of communication.

Can I see the data you have on me?

This is what digital media Professor David Carroll asked Cambridge Analytica after they bragged about having information on every voter following the 2016 US election. Carroll filed a Subject Access Request in 2017 – a law that allows EU citizens to file a request to obtain personal data held on them.

When the request was ignored, he sued Cambridge Analytica parent company SCL Elections for failing to comply with the request. While the fine of £15,000 was largely symbolic, it began crucial international conversations about the personal information that Facebook holds about individuals, from rights, ownership and access.

What don’t they want us to know?

This lack of transparency about what third party companies, advertisers or websites like Facebook and other social media sites are doing with our personal information has become a cause for international concern.

Shortly after Alexander Nix testified in British Court, Chris Wylie appeared on BBC 4 News in June 2018, implying that while Cambridge Analytica may have shut down, there are more companies like it lying in wait. He spoke on the drastic impact social media advertising is having an impact on our democracy: “Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want to testify in British court because there’s something happening that he doesn’t want us to see.”

Christopher Wylie at Cambridge Analytica protest, Parliament Square 2018. Image: Jwslubbock / Wikimedia Commons
Christopher Wylie at Cambridge Analytica protest, Parliament Square 2018. Image: Jwslubbock / Wikimedia Commons

Should I delete Facebook?

That’s the rhetoric that was floating around in early 2018 when Wylie came forward to talk about his work with Cambridge Analytica in his Guardian interview. From his experiences with the company – whose primary business is working with governments and other bodies around elections – he’s convinced that there is a lot going on behind the scenes that the tech giant doesn’t want us to know.

Just over a month ago, Mark Zuckerberg spoke at Aspen Ideas in response to the criticism his company has faced around data privacy. It follows his December 2018 appearance in the US Senate where he was questioned at length about the company’s privacy policies. In June 2019 at Aspen, he said “Getting election integrity right is probably the highest priority”.

Yet there are still many question marks over what exactly is going on at Facebook, and you’ll have to wait for Zuckerberg’s team to get to you on that one. Overwhelmingly, he seems to be urging the responsibility back onto governments, saying that in order to make new rules for the internet, "we would be better off if we had a more robust democratic process".

Is it possible to have a free and fair election ever again?

In 2016, freelance journalist Carole Caadawalladr returned to her native Wales to look at the way Facebook influenced the Brexit vote. This innocuous assignment from the Observer was the beginning of an investigation that would lead her from dark corners of the internet to the TED stage. She found that “multiple crimes took place during the referendum, and they took place on Facebook”.

During her research, she spoke to Chris Wylie about the ways that Facebook has sold user data to Cambridge Analytica. In her gripping and horrifying TED Talk, – which features prominently in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack, she talks through the sinister advertising campaigns that broke UK data laws. Her talk is an urgent reminder for us to consider the role that social media is playing in our democracy.

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