Whistleblower alleges illegal use of Facebook data swung Brexit vote

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declined a summons to speak in the UK Parliament over a massive data harvesting scandal. A whistleblower alleged on Tuesday (27 March) that data firm Cambridge Analytica illegally used Facebook profile data to swing the 2016 Brexit referendum. [Lisa Hornak/EPA]

Cambridge Analytica illegally rigged the 2016 Brexit referendum by harvesting Facebook profiles, a whistleblower has told MPs.

During a three hour-long hearing, Chris Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, told British MPs that the London-based data analysis firm broke UK law.

He described how the company’s connections and data sharing with Canadian firm Aggregate IQ. Wylie alleged that ‘AIQ’ worked with the Leave campaign ahead of the Brexit referendum, which could violate British campaign spending rules.

Wylie has alleged that the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum was another client. At a separate hearing in the same Parliament committee last month, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix denied that allegation.

The Canadian whistleblower argued that it is “completely reasonable to say that there could have been a different outcome in the referendum had there not been, in my view, cheating”.

Wylie told MPs that he supported the campaign for the UK to leave the EU, but now disapproves of what he alleged was Cambridge Analytica’s illegal work to help the Leave campaign.

“To irrevocably alter the constitutional settlement of this country on fraud is a mutilation of the constitutional settlement of this country. You cannot call yourself a Leaver, you cannot call yourself somebody who believes in British law by breaking British law to achieve that goal,” he said.

Would Brexit have come about without Cambridge Analytica?

Christopher Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, said British voters would not have chosen to leave the EU in such large numbers without the coordinated action of far-right networks that lent a hand to the Leave.eu campaign. EURACTIV.fr reports.

Wylie also alleged that Cambridge Analytica collected data from even more Facebook profiles than the previously reported figure of 50 million users.

His testimony added to mounting political pressure on Facebook.

The social media giant has seen its share prices tumble since The New York Times and The Observer reported over a week ago that the company knew of the massive data harvesting in 2016 but did not inform its users.

Before the start of Tuesday’s hearing, Damian Collins, the Tory MP who chairs the Parliament’s digital and culture committee, repeated that Mark Zuckerberg should appear before MPs, having sent a letter to the Facebook CEO earlier this month asking him to answer questions.

In a written response on Tuesday, Zuckerberg recommended that two senior executives, Mike Schroepfer, the company’s chief technology officer and Chris Cox, chief product officer, attend instead.

Collins said the committee “would still like to hear from Mr Zuckerberg as well” and wants the CEO to either attend a Parliament hearing in person or speak over video call.

After listening to more than two hours of Wylie’s testimony, Collins sharpened his criticism of the Facebook CEO.

“Given the extraordinary evidence we have heard so far today and the things we’ve heard in the other inquiry, I think it’s absolutely astonishing that Mark Zuckerberg is not prepared to submit himself to questioning,” the MP said.

EU heads of state issue warning over Facebook data case

The 28 EU heads of state issued a warning shot on Thursday (22 March) over allegations that 50 million Facebook users’ data was harvested without their consent to influence political campaigns.

A Facebook spokeswoman said that Cox and Schroepfer “report directly to Mark Zuckerberg and are among the longest serving senior representatives in Facebook’s 15 year history”.

Zuckerberg apologised for the “breach of trust” in advertisements that appeared in several German newspapers  on Tuesday.

The UK data protection authority is investigating whether Facebook and Cambridge Analytica broke the law by collecting users’ data without informing them that it would be analysed for political campaign work.

The United States Federal Trade Committee confirmed on Monday that it is also investigating Facebook’s “privacy practices” following reports over Cambridge Analytica’s harvesting.

Uproar over the scandal has also spilled over to Brussels. At a European Council summit last Thursday (22 March), EU leaders stated that “social networks and digital platforms need to guarantee transparent practices and full protection of citizens’ privacy and personal data”.

National data protection regulators from other EU countries are supporting the UK authority’s investigation into whether the incident broke any privacy laws. The European Parliament has also asked Zuckerberg to attend a hearing.

Separately, EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova wrote to Facebook last Friday (23 March) asking the company to explain its role in the collection of millions of users’ profile data.

Facebook under pressure as EU lawmakers announce probes into data harvesting

The European Parliament announced on Monday (19 March) that it will investigate allegations that millions of Facebook users’ data was misused without their knowledge. The European Commission also called for national watchdogs to open their own probes of the incident.

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