The B.C.-raised whistleblower at the centre of a massive data-mining operation that targeted millions of Facebook users ahead of the 2016 U.S. election may have been responsible for a similar operation during the lead-up to the Brexit vote — which also involved a tiny B.C. firm.
Christopher Wylie, the 28-year-old data scientist who blew the lid on years of data-harvesting practices by Cambridge Analytica, has also been connected to a small Victoria-based data company called AggregateIQ, which received close to £4 million from the Vote Leave campaign, the main voice calling on the U.K to leave the European Union in 2016.
AggregateIQ is currently at the centre of investigations being led by both the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office and the B.C. Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, who confirmed their probes in December.
On Monday, the B.C. OIPC confirmed the investigation is ongoing.
“The OIPC is investigating whether AggregateIQ is in compliance with the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA),” the office said in a statement, adding it can’t provide specific details on the “active” investigation.
“Our investigations generally result in findings and recommendations, but in some cases, we will issue a legally binding order. In terms of penalties, an organization that commits an offence under [PIPA] is liable to a fine of up to $100,000,” the statement concluded.
On March 6, U.K. information commissioner Elizabeth Denham told the British parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee that a report on the investigation, which also looks at several other companies involved in swaying opinions during the Brexit referendum, is expected to be released by the end of May.
Denham was B.C.’s privacy commissioner before taking her post in the U.K.
AggregateIQ did not respond to requests for comment.
Who is Christopher Wylie?
Global News was unable to speak to Wylie, but an exhaustive profile in the Guardian sheds some light on his past in Canada.
Wylie, who describes himself as gay and a vegan, grew up in B.C., although where exactly he calls home is unknown.
At the age of six, he told the paper, he was abused by a mentally unstable person while at school, which led to a long court battle after the school attempted to cover up the incident.
As a teenager, he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, and was a victim of bullying. He successfully sued the B.C. Ministry of Education to get the province’s inclusion policies around bullying changed, eventually leaving school altogether at 16 without a single qualification.
But he was able to land a job with the federal Liberal Party a year later, eventually working in the office of then-party leader Stephane Dion, who was also the leader of the Opposition in Parliament.
It was there that he began to formulate strategies on how politicians could capitalize on data collected through social media — the same strategies that would form the basis of the operations conducted by Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ.
A former senior Liberal insider who spoke on condition of anonymity said Wylie pitched the idea to the office, which had since been taken over by Michael Ignatieff, but that the Liberals wanted nothing to do with it, calling his approach too invasive.
The source, who joined several other former co-workers and people who knew Wylie in describing him as “whip-smart,” said the idea played a significant part in Wylie losing his job in the office in 2009.
Several other senior Liberal officials who worked in the office during that time told The Canadian Press that they don’t remember Wylie, and those who did only had vague recollections of him working there.
“I vaguely recall him,” wrote one former senior official in an email on Sunday. “I think that he was a summer intern.”
Another former senior Liberal, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he asked former colleagues on Sunday, and some people remembered Wylie. They say he was “pretty junior” and worked in the data strategy and communications space.
A federal Liberal spokesperson said in a statement that protecting the information of Canadians is a “foremost priority,” and insisted that the party doesn’t sell information under any circumstances.
Facebook, which says it found out about the data operation in 2015, has since blocked Wylie and Cambridge Analytica from the social media platform as it investigates the operation. Cambridge Analytica has denied any wrongdoing.
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