Cambridge Analytica, Whistle-Blowers, and Tech's Dark Appeal

We’re in a whistle-blower moment. An administration truth-teller has helped ignite an impeachment investigation. Another whistle is allegedly perched on the lips of someone at the IRS, who might report damaging information about the president’s tax return. Edward Snowden’s book has hit the bestseller lists.

The moment is seemingly perfect for Christopher Wylie, the former head of research for Cambridge Analytica, and his new book Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica And the Plot To Break America. The back-flap biography says that Wylie “has been called the millennials’ first great whistleblower.” The quote seems to have come from his personal Boswell, the Guardian and Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr, who is neither a millennial nor unbiased. Wylie, after all, was Cadwalladr’s Deep Throat, the main source for her Pulitzer-nominated exposé of the company that exploited ill-gotten Facebook data to campaign for Donald Trump.

The claims to “great whistleblower,” though, are outsized. Wylie does have an important point to make, but it’s not about Trump or Facebook.

Wylie was at the center of Cambridge Analytica’s misdeeds. He worked closely with its one-time VP Steve Bannon, and writes that the intellectual sparks between the two of them were so intense that it “felt like we were flirting.” He was a willing participant at the meeting where Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix solicited its operating funds from Robert Mercer, the shadowy financier of the far right. It was Wylie who used those funds to launch Project Ripon, the system that wound up combining the personal data of around 50 million unsuspecting Facebook users with other information to manipulate them to vote for Trump, or, if they were unlikely Trump voters, to stay at home on election day.

So when we met last week to discuss his book, I wasn’t expecting the next Daniel Ellsberg. Wylie is, however, rather convivial. His close-cropped hair dyed pink, he’s sporting a nose ring and wearing a suede tunic that’s kind of like a medieval hoodie. When I ask him about the irony of calling himself out, he says it’s only natural that whistle-blowers are often participants in the wrongdoing they’re exposing. “One of the reasons why a lot of people will have access to information is because they’re somehow involved in that thing, right?” he says. Chelsea Manning and others, he notes, “were also working on projects that they then realized were not things that they want to be working on, that people probably should know about.”

But Chelsea Manning didn’t draw up the plans for what she exposed. Wylie was the architect. What seems puzzling is why Wylie, an openly gay Canadian who worked on the Obama reelection campaign, was serving a movement so opposed to his own views. He claims, dubiously, that he was slow to learn how his creation would be used, and then he left. Still, he accepts some responsibility for his actions, and says his cooperation with investigations in the US and UK come from his remorse.

His previous self-description as a “chatterbox” is an apt one. In conversation and in his book, he offers all kinds of policy suggestions, but it’s his argument about the power of technology that warrants attention.

As he learned firsthand, technology can seduce an engineer, data scientist, or academic into ignoring the consequences of an experiment or a project on actual people. Wylie was fascinated by the concept of reconstructing a society in silico—capturing people’s data trails and their behavior to remake the actual world. “For me, this whole idea of society as a game was super epic,” he writes. When he got hired to head up research for SCL, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, he saw a chance to pursue that dream, even if it meant working for the likes of Nix, Bannon, and Mercer.

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