A former employee of Cambridge Analytica turned whistleblower said today that the company had worked extensively in India and may have been employed by the Congress party. This was during his evidence before a U.K. parliamentary committee investigating the issue of fake news.
Christopher Wylie deposed before the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee amid an escalating row on alleged harvesting of Facebook user data by the controversial U.K.-based company. Cambridge Analytica has also been linked with alleged attempts to influence elections in India.
“When you look at Facebook's biggest market, India is the top in terms of numbers of users. Obviously, that’s a country which is rife with political discord and opportunities for destabilisation,” said Labour MP Paul Farrelly, member of the parliamentary committee, during his questioning.
They (Cambridge Analytica) worked extensively in India. They have an office in India.Christopher Wylie
“I believe their client was Congress, but I know that they have done all kinds of projects. I don’t remember a national project but I know regionally. India’s so big that one state can be as big as Britain. But they do have offices there, they do have staff there,’ the 28-year-old added, on being probed further.
He offered to provide the committee “documentation” on India, which was welcomed by Farrelly, who said India was a country that did not need any added “tensions”.
During his evidence, Wylie also said that his predecessor, Dan Muresan, Head of Elections at SCL Group, had also been working in India before he died in Kenya under mysterious circumstances. He claimed to have heard stories that Muresan, a Romanian national, may have been poisoned in a hotel room while in the African country.
Paul-Olivier Dehaye, co-founder of PersonalData.IO, a service that helps individuals regain control over their personal data, also giving evidence to the committee, added that he had heard reports that Muresan was being paid by an Indian billionaire who wanted Congress to lose elections.
“So he was pretending to work for one party but actually paid underhand by someone else,” said Dehaye. He added that it would be for Indian and Kenyan journalists to get together to investigate the matter further.
At the start of today’s session, it emerged that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has declined to appear before the committee amid an ongoing row over data breaches linked to the social media company.
A summons letter had been sent to Zuckerberg by Damian Collins, the chair of DCMS. In a response to Collins, Facebook's head of public policy, Rebecca Stimson, said the company would be putting forward its chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, or its chief product officer, Chris Cox.
"Facebook fully recognises the level of public and Parliamentary interest in these issues and support your belief that these issues must be addressed at the most senior levels of the company by those in an authoritative position to answer your questions," Stimson said.
"As such Mr Zuckerberg has personally asked one of his deputies to make themselves available to give evidence in person to the Committee," she said, adding that both men likely to step in report directly to Zuckerberg and are among the longest-serving senior representatives in Facebook's 15-year history.
The DCMS, which is currently hearing oral evidence as part of its inquiry, is likely to hear from one of the Facebook executives after the Parliament's Easter recess, which ends on April 16.
"We will seek to clarify from Facebook whether he (Zuckerberg) is available to give evidence or not, because that wasn't clear from our correspondence. If he is available to give evidence then we would be happy to do that either in person or by video link, if that would be more convenient for him," Collins said in a statement.
Wylie has accused his former employer, Cambridge Analytica, of gathering the details of 50 million users on Facebook through a personality quiz in 2014. He alleges that because 270,000 people took the quiz, the data of some 50 million users, mainly in the US, was harvested without their explicit consent via their friend networks.
Wylie claims the data was sold to Cambridge Analytica, which then used it to psychologically profile people and deliver material in favour of Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential elections. He also criticised Cambridge Analytica for running campaigns in "struggling democracies", which he called "an example of what modern-day colonialism looks like".
"You have a wealthy company from a developed nation going into an economy or democracy that's still struggling to get its feet on the ground – and taking advantage of that to profit from that," he told MPs.
Cambridge Analytica denies any of the data acquired was used as part of the services it provided to the Trump campaign.
As the controversy continues to escalate, Zuckerberg took out full-page advertisements in several U.K. and U.S. Sunday newspapers to apologise. “This was a breach of trust, and I am sorry,” the back-page ads said.
In an undercover report last week, Cambridge Analytica executives had been caught boasting that they, along with parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories, had worked in more than 200 elections around the world, including India, Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic and Argentina.
The recordings were made during a series of meetings at London hotels between November 2017 and January 2018.