Facebook data: the whistleblowers' tale
The FT's Aliya Ram interviews Christopher Wylie and Shahmir Sanni, the two Cambridge Analytica whistleblowers at the centre of the Facebook data breach outcry, about how the scandal broke and what it means for Facebook and British politics
Filmed by James Sandy and Petros Gioumpasis. Produced by James Sandy and Juliet Riddell.
So you do think Facebook has done enough to safeguard the data?
I mean, Facebook didn't really do anything to safeguard the data. There were a lot of apps at the time that we're pulling lots of data, including from friend networks. And you know, Facebook wasn't exactly proactive in asking questions or finding out where that data went. What I do know is that Facebook has known about it since at least 2015. And they got in touch with me in August 2016 about the data set. It is sort of an existential question for Facebook. Do they want to be a data harvesting company or do they want to be a community of users? And I think that's a really fundamental question that Facebook has to ask.
Do you think - and then Chris, as well - that Facebook has handled this issue well?
No. They banned him. You know? Chris can answer to that. But they banned him from Facebook for being a whistleblower. And that's ridiculous. Even in terms of here, in terms of this country, in terms of Britain, regarding Brexit, with me as a whistleblower, it hasn't been, OK, let's listen. It's been: shut them down.
What I've been asking Facebook consistently, day after day after day, is, why don't we sit down and talk about the vulnerabilities of your system and work together to figure out ways to improve it so that you as a company can be a good corporate citizen and work to improve mistakes that were made on all sides? But I think their reaction as the company has been, you know, to not embrace criticism.
Do you think social media data should not be used in political campaigning?
Not the way that it has been in the past few years, no. I don't think so. I think it's the way that - you put more of yourself on the internet than you show in real life. You're more of yourself on the web that you present to other people. And we sort of have this sense of importance that we show and give to someone in a conversation as much as we want to give. You know, that's our decision. But online, you can't do that. And so what gives someone else a right to take all of your identity and sort of decide how to use it against you?
Being able to use some form of targeting, I think, is helpful in politics in the sense that me, as a campaigner, better understanding something that impacts you more than others and me addressing that issue with you is a fundamental aspect of democracy in the sense that it is a way of me listening to you and a way of me engaging you on something that matters to you. But that can be done in a way that respects the consent of the individual and is not done in a way that is manipulative or opaque.
Do you think there should be a second referendum?
To be honest, I hate the idea. I hate the idea because it makes me sound like a Ramoana. I don't want to be a Ramoana because I'm a proud Brexiteer. But what other option is there, that we go ahead with something that was based on cheating? I worked my ass off for vote leave. I worked my ass off to win that referendum. And I was proud of winning that referendum until realising afterwards that, actually, I was used.
If we are making a permanent, irreversible change the constitutional settlement of Britain, we need to be confident that this is a result that was won with the consent of people without the influence of money. The only way that you can be sure that the British people indeed want to do this is a second vote. Because if we have a second vote, it may be that Britain reconfirms the first vote. And I think that's fine. I have no problem with that. Reconfirm it. Be absolutely sure. It's an irreversible change the constitution. We should be crystal clear that this is what people want.
And how will you campaign if there's a second referendum?
I'm a eurosceptic. I still am a eurosceptic.
I'd be on the Brexit team, hands down, no doubt about that. You know, again, this is not about leave or remain, this is about the integrity of our democratic process, and how, in my view, should not be permanently changing the foundational law of this country if there is any shroud of doubt about the legality of the process that was done to do that.