Cambridge Analytica whistleblower says company helped swing Brexit vote

Former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie made a series of surprising assertions about the data mining company to British lawmakers on March 27.

The tumultuous scandal over Cambridge Analytica and its role in manipulating democracies seems far from unraveled.


In hours-long testimony before a House of Commons committee on March 27, former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie made a series of surprising claims about the inner workings of the firm and its parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL).

The 28-year-old whistleblower said that Cambridge Analytica played a role in swinging the Brexit vote in favor of withdrawal, claimed that the company had collected data on “substantially” more than 50 million Facebook users, and even suggested that his predecessor at the company had been murdered.

“They don't care whether or not what they do is legal as long as it gets the job done,” he said, addressing lawmakers. “Broadly, this is a company that goes around the world and undermines civil institutions of countries that are struggling to develop those institutions. ... They are an example of what modern-day colonialism looks like.”

Implicating a new actor in the ongoing scandal, Wylie said that a Canadian analytics company called Aggregate IQ acted as a “proxy money-laundering vehicle” for funneling illegal funds into pro-Brexit campaigns and that SCL provided this company with Facebook user data so it could build software to target voters online.

“I think it is completely reasonable to say that there could have been a different outcome of the referendum had there not been, in my view, cheating,” he said.

Wylie said he believes the number of Facebook users whose data was harvested is higher than current estimates.

“The 50 million number is what the media has felt safest to report—because of the documentation that they can rely on—but my recollection is that it was substantially higher than that. So my own view is it was much more than 50 million.”

Wylie also suggested that the Facebook data collected by Kogan could have been obtained by Russian parties, considering the psychologist was known to have made multiple trips to Russia.

“Put a key logger in Kogan’s computer in Russia and you’ve got everything,” Wylie said, adding: “It would make it incredibly easy for them to get access to this data. For me, that’s concerning and I think it should be looked into.”

But he spent much of his testimony explaining to lawmakers how data mining works, like “a patient grandson trying to set up a Skype call with his gran,” as one journalist wrote.

“The way I like to think of it, data is the electricity of our new economy, and electricity can be quite dangerous,” he said. “We enjoy the benefits of electricity, despite the fact that it can literally kill you.”

Cambridge Analytica downplayed its past association with Wylie, writing in a statement that the whistleblower’s testimony amounted to “false information, speculation, and completely unfounded conspiracy theories.” The company wrote that it didn’t use any data from Global Science Research (GSR), Aleksandr Kogan’s company that harvested data from millions of Facebook users, in its work for Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and asserted that it “played no role in the UK referendum on EU membership.”

Cambridge Analytica also wrote it was “disgusted” that Wylie would suggest his predecessor at Cambridge Analytica was murdered.


Alexander Nix, former chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, speaks at the 2017 Web Summit in Lisbon. (Photo: Getty)

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee has requested that Alexander Nix, the suspended chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, appear in front of lawmakers again to answer about “a number of inconsistencies” in evidence he provided during a February 27 hearing, namely the claim that Cambridge Analytica never received Facebook data from GSR. Nix is scheduled to appear on April 17.

In the broad context of public concern over data mining, there’s one recurring problem that’s causing a lot of confusion: most people don’t have the technical knowledge to understand what’s happening.

“I have had to explain and re-explain and re-explain and re-explain, you know, how relational databases work, what is an eigenvector, what is dimensionality reduction,” Wylie said.

“They have been working really, really hard. But as a point of observation, one of the weak points that I’ve seen—again, this is an empathetic criticism—is the lack of technical people... They have had to ask me a lot of questions that a database engineer would not ask.”

Wylie said he was sorry for helping to build the company.

“I am incredibly remorseful for my role in setting it up. I’m the first person to say that I should have known better. But what’s done is done.”

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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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