OTTAWA: Federal Liberals are sharing details about a $100,000 pilot project undertaken for their caucus research bureau by the Canadian data scientist who triggered an international uproar over his allegations that Facebook users’ data was inappropriately harvested for political gain.
Christopher Wylie came forward in recent days with accusations that a voter-profiling company improperly collected private information from some 50 million Facebook users in order to help seal 2016 victories for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the U.S. and in the U.K.’s Brexit referendum.
Wylie has said in media interviews that he not only played a key role in developing the data-mining technique, he also helped establish the Cambridge Analytica firm he alleges was behind it.
His allegations have forced policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic to wrestle with growing public concerns that data collected by Facebook and other social-media companies are being misused as a way to influence elections.
After The Canadian Press revealed Wylie was contracted by the Liberals in early 2016, the party released more information Wednesday about the short-lived agreement _ and they insist that after seeing a sample of his services, they decided not to move forward.
The issue emerged as a dominant theme during question period in the House of Commons, where political rivals repeatedly questioned the government on the contract and the issue of protecting Canadians’ online privacy.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer led off by demanding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explain Wylie’s exact role with the Liberal government.
“Protecting the personal and privacy information of Canadians should be a top priority for government,” said Scheer, who noted how Wylie had also worked for previous Liberal leaders about a decade ago.
“Yet the prime minister has failed to be honest with Canadians about the Liberal Party’s relationship with an individual who has exploited the private information of millions of people around the world.”
Scott Brison, acting minister of democratic institutions, insisted all lawmakers in the House have a responsibility to protect the personal information of Canadians.
“All major political parties engage in data-driven activities,” said Brison, who later added he has contacted the federal privacy commissioner and Facebook in an effort to determine whether Canadians’ personal data had been compromised.
Shortly before question period, the Liberals issued a statement saying Wylie’s company, Eunoia Technologies, conducted preliminary work for the caucus research bureau at a cost of $100,000 in a contract done in accordance with House of Commons procurement rules.
They insisted that at no point did Wylie’s firm have access to any data from the research bureau.
Brison read from the statement in the House: “After seeing what was offered, Liberal caucus research bureau decided not to move forward.”
The statement by the bureau’s managing director, Melissa Cotton, also said Wylie’s firm was contracted for several purposes, such as setting up social-media monitoring tools and the creation of samples of Canadians to help the party better understand the public’s opinions on government policies and other issues of national importance.
The work also included recruiting constituents as a way to identify a range of local or regional issues not covered by national polls and assisting the bureau in monitoring the performance of Liberal MPs’ communications with their constituents.
Earlier this week, The Canadian Press spoke with an acquaintance of Wylie’s who described having drinks with the data expert in Ottawa in November 2015, a few weeks after the federal election.
The acquaintance said Wylie talked about his plans to shop his Facebook data-mining techniques in the national capital, including with the Liberals, and also in Washington with the Republican party.
Wylie described using a Facebook survey as an entry point to collect user data, and the pair discussed the ethical concerns surrounding the method, according to the acquaintance.
By 2009, during Wylie’s stint working for the Liberal leader’s office, he had already begun to develop strategies on how politicians could capitalize on information collected through social media, another former Liberal insider said earlier this week.
At that time, Wylie was pushing a fledgling form of the data-harvesting technique, but the idea was considered too invasive and raised concerns with the Liberals, who decided they didn’t want anything to do with it and chose not to renew his contract, said the insider, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.
Wylie has not responded to interview requests by The Canadian Press.
The federal privacy commissioner has formally launched an investigation to determine whether any personal information of Canadians was affected by the alleged unauthorized access to Facebook user profiles.
Facebook Canada released a statement Wednesday saying it was “strongly committed to protecting people’s information” and would answer any questions from the privacy commissioner.
Meanwhile, the Trudeau government is asking the Communications Security Establishment and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to take a closer look at the situation to better ensure the privacy rights of Canadians are protected.
Brison has said he’d be open to strengthening federal privacy laws even further to better protect those who share their information online.
Facebook has denied the data collection involving Cambridge Analytica was a breach because people gave their consent when they chose to sign up for a personality test via an app on the platform.
The social-media giant, however, has faced widespread criticism over revelations about the leak and the fact the company has known about it since 2015, but didn’t disclose it publicly. The issue wasn’t made public until recently.
On Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted in a post on the platform that his company had “made mistakes.”
“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you,” Zuckerberg said.
“I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Cambridge Analytica has “strongly denied” the allegations that it had improperly obtained Facebook data.
The company has also insisted Wylie was a contractor, not a founder, as he has claimed. Wylie, a 28-year-old from British Columbia, left the firm in 2014.
Trump’s campaign has denied using the Cambridge Analytica’s data, saying it relied on the Republican National Committee for its information.