Chris Wylie, whistleblower: 'From fashion to fascism' and back again

He was banned from Facebook after his revelations unleashed the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Now Wylie is finding hope in AI.
Andrew Hoyle/CNET
This story is part of Road Trip 2019, profiles of the troublemakers and trailblazers who are designing our future.

It's safe to say that Mark Zuckerberg won't be friending Chris Wylie on Facebook anytime soon. In fact, Wylie isn't even on Facebook anymore. He was banned after exposing a scandal at the world's largest social network, a scandal that sparked global criminal and political investigations and implicated one of the world's biggest and most powerful technology companies and its billionaire founder.

Wylie, a former data consultant, blew the whistle on the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica affair, in which data on nearly 70 million Facebook users was co-opted for political marketing purposes. Now he knows what it's like to go from relative obscurity to the face of a controversy that involved viciously divisive events including Brexit and the 2016 US presidential elections. Forget moving house or losing your job; being a whistleblower is stressful on a completely different level -- and only a handful of people know the true extent of it.

"It's very hard to describe what it's like to literally be under a microscope for the entire world and talk about some really fucked-up shit that went down," says Wylie, a talkative and striking 30-year-old native of Victoria, British Columbia. "That amount of attention, it becomes a very existential thing. Like, who are you and what are you doing and why are you here?"

In March 2018, a joint investigation by The Observer and The New York Times revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a now defunct British data consultancy, used the Facebook data to create political ads for elections in multiple countries. Wylie was the former employee who exposed the scandal -- and his life -- to the world. It's a sprawling, contentious story that he's chronicled in a book publishing Tuesday called Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America.

In blowing the whistle, Wylie didn't implicate himself in data misuse, but he was left to grapple with the knowledge that he helped build a big cyber gun for hire. Normally not at a loss for words, Wylie only struggles for the right words over the course of multiple conversations when he tries to describe to me the surrealism of his experience and its impact on his life. "A blur," is all he can say.

A year and a half after the revelations and his appearance before a UK parliamentary committee to speak about Cambridge Analytica's activities, Wylie is finding life somewhat calmer. The sharp scrutiny has faded, and since December 2018, he's had a new job at global retailer H&M as a research director, building what he describes as ethical AI systems to help the company become more sustainable and more profitable and to better serve its customers' needs without exploiting them in the process.

"I just want to make sure that what I'm doing is genuinely going to help somebody here in the world who I might never know or might never meet," he says. "People who work in the cultural space, I think, genuinely don't understand how much power they have with making the world a better place. Let's wield it."

The way he tells it, he didn't expect much when he accepted H&M's invitation to come to Stockholm to chat, but he got a good vibe straight away. During a lunch meeting, someone walked in and placed a stem of roasted cauliflower in front of him. It's gesture that Wylie, a vegan, vividly remembers. 

"I was like, 'Oh, it's table service in a boardroom -- cool,'" he says. But then the server sat down beside him and joined in the conversation. "Turns out, it was actually the CEO, who ran to go get some vegan food. But he didn't introduce himself as the CEO, he just sat down." 

This act of humility and empathy was Wylie's first glimpse of what he views as the company's "enlightened" ethos.

'From fashion to fascism'

When we met in June at Serata Hall, a cavernous bar and restaurant in the Shoreditch district of East London, Wylie's hair had reverted from the vibrant pink he wore when he first shot into the spotlight, and the green it later became, to its natural white blond with hipster micro bangs. His signature nose ring was still in place. Though Canadian, he pre-vetted the place with a very British brand of self-aware sarcasm, deeming it "sufficiently millennial" for his tastes. 

Tucked away on the mezzanine of the airy bar, we ordered "unicorn G&Ts." As the server poured grapefruit tonic into small-batch gin made with blue pea flowers, the two liquids turned a pastel lavender hue as they mingled. The drinks were an appropriate choice given that we were there to talk about his turbulent journey from fashion school, to Cambridge Analytica, to his role at H&M -- or as he describes it: "from fashion to fascism to fashion."

Out of context, it's a statement that has the potential to sound glib, but in fact Wylie's publicly acknowledged regret is key to understanding the direction his life has taken in the wake of the scandal. From his very first interview published in The Guardian and echoed in his conversations with me, it's clear he's not just trying to expose wrongdoing but attempting to own his role in the scandal and undo the harm he did personally. In the very first Observer profile of Wylie when he emerged as a whistleblower, a friend describes Cambridge Analytica as his own "data Frankenmonster."

It's been a personal reckoning that has meant confronting his demons, often in public. It's impossible for Wylie to talk about Cambridge Analytica without acknowledging and being challenged on his own actions in front of politicians, in journalist interviews and on stages in front of massive audiences.

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Wylie is finding ways to make amends.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"Like so many people in technology, I stupidly fell for the hubristic allure of Facebook's call to 'move fast and break things,'" he writes in his book. "I've never regretted something so much."

Despite the personal and professional upheaval he experienced, the one thing Wylie doesn't regret is coming forward to tell the world about what Cambridge Analytica was doing as it was able to exploit Facebook. It was a decision rooted in deep personal conviction. "I feel like my parents raised me right," he says. His whistleblowing is a direct result of what they taught him about "owning up to mistakes, speaking out, doing stuff that's scary."

David Carroll, the Parsons Design School professor who tried to reclaim his data from Cambridge Analytica in court and one of the main subjects of the 2019 Netflix documentary The Great Hack, knew far ahead of time that The Observer and The New York Times were working with a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower. But he didn't know who it was or what to expect. 

"Knowing that an unidentified whistleblower was in the wings, and they were trying to getting him out, was wind in my sails," he says. It made him feel like "someday, people would realize I'm not being crazy. ... He was part of that confidence."

When Wylie did emerge, Carroll was impressed by Wylie's ability to make Cambridge Analytica's complex machinations so intelligible and to be such a powerful spokesperson.

"I wasn't surprised by the content of his revelations," he says. "For me, it's just in a series of validation, confirmations of worst fears. I was surprised by how eloquently he was able to position it. And then, of course, I wasn't so surprised about the complexity of his of his character -- whistleblowers are always complicated creatures."

A reckoning and a metamorphosis

It's fortunate that Wylie is such an articulate, bold speaker, for the world of whistleblowing is no place for wallflowers. The day following our photoshoot for this profile, he flew to Sydney for a day to speak at the Opera House -- not an unusual occurrence. Since March 2018, when he hasn't been hauled in for debriefs with law enforcement and politicians, he's been in high demand for TV appearances and speaking engagements.

Carolyn Mair, a  former professor of the psychology of fashion at London's University of the Arts, first met Wylie when he applied for a master's degree in applied psychology while he was in his early 20s (she's since joined his team at H&M). She says his ability to express complicated concepts struck her straight away. Realizing the master's would be too simple for him, she encouraged him to apply for a doctorate instead.

"I was just absolutely spellbound, I suppose, thinking that I've never met anybody like him -- and I still don't think I have," she says, when describing their first meeting. "He is, in himself, so genuine as well as gifted."

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Wylie is a highly engaging speaker.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In our conversations, I found the loquaciousness I'd observed on television, on stage and in Parliament no less dynamic in person. Wylie has a knack for pulling crystal-clear metaphors out of thin air and speaks with the deep-seated conviction of someone who's put in the hours assembling a solid belief system.

Carroll points to when he gave evidence in the March 2018 UK parliamentary inquiry into fake news as a classic example. During the hearing, Wylie compared what Cambridge Analytica did during elections to doping in the Olympics -- his point being that cheating should be enough to get participants disqualified, regardless of the outcome. "He was able to not just answer questions, but present an argument," Caroll says. "And he had rhetorical flourishes that were very effective."

Wylie honed his public speaking skills as a teenager. He didn't get on well with high school, but "by random chance" became interested in town hall meetings with different members of the Canadian parliament. "It's the one chance where I got to say what I thought rather than be told by a teacher what to think," he remembers.

He moved to Ottawa in 2007 to work with his local member of Parliament for the Liberal Party, and from there he went to the US in 2008 to work on Barack Obama's election campaign. It was after moving to the UK in 2010, completing a law degree at the London School of Economics and starting his Ph.D. in fashion trend forecasting at London's University of the Arts, that he was introduced to the SCL Group (he still needs to finish writing his Ph.D. thesis, he adds, as an aside).

"They were looking for people who were interested in looking at behavior and data and at how we can predict behavior with data, particularly online," Wylie says. It wasn't much of a leap to apply what he'd learned doing just that in politics and fashion to the military projects SCL was working on at the time. He began working for the firm as a contractor in 2013 and held the title of director of research.

It was while at SCL between 2013 and 2014, primarily working on military contracts, that Wylie attended a meeting at which CEO Alexander Nix and former Breitbart editor and Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon built Cambridge Analytica (funded by billionaire Robert Mercer). Initially called SCL Elections, this subsection of the company was focused on using data to psychologically profile and target people with political ads. 

This period of time formed the basis of his testimony as a whistleblower and will soon be expounded upon in Wylie's book. It was written over the course of a "manic summer," he tells me and wasn't his idea -- it took some persuading to get him to agree to it. He's moved on, and in some ways this feels like a throwback to another, darker time.

The do-over

I first met Wylie in May 2018 in an almost empty bar on Paris' Left Bank. He'd been speaking at a nearby event at the city's Station F startup hub and was drinking with a small gaggle of journalists.

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From whistleblower to fashion guru.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It was only two months after the Cambridge Analytica story had broken and he was still very much in the eye of the storm. That night in Paris, he seemed serious and anxious, his brow knitted together every time he spoke. When I asked him what he would do in the future, when all of this had blown over, he didn't have an answer. It was as if, at that moment, he couldn't fathom a time when the role of whistleblower and his association with Cambridge Analytica wouldn't define him.

It's not exactly as though no one wanted to work with him after the scandal blew up, but the kind of people who sought him out were asking him to replicate Cambridge Analytica tactics. He wasn't interested. "A lot of the approaches that I got were either, 'It's really cool what you were able to accomplish at Cambridge Analytica,'" he says. "'Could you do it without getting caught? Or could you do it, where you don't cross that legal line, but go up to it?'"

His suitors didn't seem to get that Wylie had blown the whistle with the hope of putting an end to bad practices, rather than wanting to replicate or perpetuate them. He needed a job (whistleblowing, even with the speaking engagements, doesn't pay the bills, he says) that aligned with his own ideals and purposes. In the end, he was surprised when he discovered his perfect match in a Swedish Fortune 500 fashion company.

Wylie is by his own admission "indiscreet" and not known for abiding by NDAs given to him by previous employers. With a track record of talking freely to journalists, he sounds like a liability. But to H&M, he was the perfect person to help the company invest in and build ethical AI that would stop it from falling into traps, such as exploiting customers or causing harm to the world with their tech strategy.

"The CEO told me, 'Look, I want somebody who truly has an outside perspective, and I want somebody who's going to be up front and frank, and call shit out when it's worth calling out. And who better to hire than a whistleblower?'" Wylie says of his recruitment.

I wonder if, after all that he'd been through -- including attempts by Nix and Cambridge Analytica to undermine his testimony, downplay his abilities and minimize the role he played at Cambridge Analytica -- this felt like he was being seen and understood and valued. "I'm not gonna lie, it felt validating," he says. "I just don't know of another company that is willing to take risks like that -- hire a whistleblower to explore the ethics of that company."

Marcus Moltubak, head of insights and analytics for H&M, who hired Wylie, says that he became aware of him and his work at the same time as the rest of the world, in March 2018. He listened with interest to his interviews and realized that he was deeply interested in understanding consumer behavior. "What actually made me contact him was when I became aware of the fact that he has a passion for fashion," he says.

Wylie says he bought into H&M's ethics in that very first meeting. The company didn't offer him a job right away (that came after another meeting, in October) but instead told him H&M didn't want to build AI if it was going to be harmful. They quizzed him on whether it was possible to create systems that could help make the company, and by extension the world, a better place. "I was just like, well, that's really refreshing," Wylie says. "That's nice to know that there is a big company out there that actually cares about what it's doing."

"What we share is a belief that we can do good by utilizing data in the right way," says Moltubak, describing how he felt after that first meeting. "He's so genuine about it, and so are we as a company. That was when I felt like, we want to actually do good and here we have a guy who is hugely knowledgeable in this who can actually help us understand real consumer markets."

Wylie believes in the potential for AI to cure cancer and do other amazing things for humanity, and he hopes that what he's working on at H&M can help to convince people that AI isn't dooming society to end up as a dystopian horror show.

Currently, he's spending most of his time working on waste reduction to help the company meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. He also wants to revolutionize terms and conditions, to make informed consent fun rather than a "12,000-word novella no one reads." Think Air New Zealand safety videos replete with Ian McKellan and hobbits rather than a flight attendant lecturing you about the fasten-seatbelt sign over a loudspeaker.

He's also preoccupied with the big questions his job poses. "Is there an enlightened way of using data, where you can be a company, you can still make money, but you can leave the world better year after year, every time you use it, and that people will be delighted by how it is that you're using their information?" he asks.

It's clear that whatever was in that H&M Kool-Aid -- or in this case, cauliflower -- has him jazzed. Occasionally he apologizes for banging on about it too much. "I'm a company man now," he jokes. Ultimately, his enthusiasm is rooted in his faith in the sincerity of its leadership. "They really want to do the right thing," he says. "And they know that they've made mistakes in the past, and they really want to be a better company."

That's not to suggest H&M doesn't have its issues. Various criticisms of the company have included insensitive ads (a black child model wearing a "coolest monkey" sweater, for example), lack of sustainability, worker rights and supply chain issues. But in essence that's why Wylie's there.

"I feel like it would be too easy to go to some niche company that's perfect in every way and go: My hands are totally clean and pure," he says. Instead his attitude is: "Big industry, big companies, big problems -- cool, OK. So let's see if I can fix it."

Professional chatterbox

Probably the biggest misunderstanding about who Wylie is and what he does is the idea that he's just the tech guy, a computer science whiz kid. After he was thrust into the spotlight for building Bannon's psychological warfare tool, it would be easy to picture him locked away in a bunker in a hoodie crouched over a keyboard, lines of code reflected in his dilated pupils.

As it happens, he does favor hoodies as his go-to style, but the rest of it is pure myth that amuses him no end. So far at H&M he's spent so little time in front of a computer that he says he can feel his coding language of choice, Python, getting rusty. "The Guardian yesterday called me data czar," he laughs. "I don't know what a data czar is, but I'm like, 'OK, all right, I guess I'm a data czar now.'"

In fact, a huge chunk of his work, at H&M, in politics and at Cambridge Analytica, has simply been to talk to people, both online and through focus groups, to get a measure of what voters, customers and more generally people of the world are really thinking. Fundamentally, Wylie is interested in how cultural trends drive the major forces in the world, and at the heart of culture is people. So it's people he turns to when building technology. 

"OK, yes, I do some very technical things," he says. "But I think one of the problems with people who are in tech is they forget that tech needs to be in the service of humanity. And so a lot of what I do is actually just going, who is missing in this conversation? And who do we need to include in this conversation?"

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Work and travel make Wylie's life a nonstop whirlwind.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's one of his biggest wishes that more people building tech products would take time to understand the people they're building them for. "If you live inside of a fucking circuit board, if you live inside of software, you aren't seeing stuff outside of that," he says.

That's why sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists -- and not just data scientists and engineers -- are on the team he works with now. It's important to him that the company invests time in things like understanding indigenous communities so that their style of dress is not reflected back to them as a costume. Preventing appropriation, he says, starts with helping people understand that "these are cultures and symbols worthy of respect." 

He has a similar attitude toward sizing. "Ironically, for an industry that is obsessed with the newest thing, when it comes to sizing … fashion is actually quite a laggard," he says. "There is a whiteness also to the way sizing works, because when you go to different parts of the world, people are shaped differently."

Since understanding sizing is crucial to production and distribution for a global fashion company, he hopes consumers will be happy for the company to use their sizing data if it will result in a better customer service experience. That is part of the conversation he and his team are having with customers.

"What I do right now is unique, but I don't think it should be unique," Wylie says. "It's not that complicated. I look at a problem as a question: Who does this affect, or who could it affect? Who should be included in this conversation? And then I give some people a call."

Stranger than fiction

But just as Wylie has met people who have increased his understanding and appreciation of the world's problems, he's also been influenced by the brushes he's had with people he describes as grossly unethical. "[It's] crystalized a lot of my own sort of opinions and perceptions on things," he says.

It wouldn't matter whose version of the story you heard, Wylie had a complex relationship with Bannon and Nix, his former bosses. He's previously said that he found Bannon to be smart and still shares his belief in the idea that politics is downstream from culture, and yet their personal politics are completely at odds (Bannon holds famously alt-right views, Wylie does not). As for Nix, there's no love lost between them.

There's a scene in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack when, after former Cambridge Analytica employee Brittany Kaiser gives evidence to Parliament (to the same committee and for the same inquiry as Wylie), she receives a text message from Nix congratulating her with a winky face. I ask Wylie if he received anything similar from Nix in the wake of his own testimony, but the two haven't spoken since Wylie left the SCL Group.

"The last thing that he told me was how much of a mistake that I was making," he says. "He was literally like, 'You're going to remember this moment, and you're going to regret this for the rest of your life.'"

The next and last time they saw each other was when Nix came to Parliament in June 2018 to give evidence. Their only interaction took place when Wylie was sitting at the rear of the room, between his lawyer and Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr. "They had a break midway through and he came back -- he sort of sashayed -- and then he just looked at me and he just winked," Wylie says. "He's never said anything to me since."

In May 2018, Cambridge Analytica filed for insolvency and closed its operations, making it impossible for authorities to pursue claims against it. Nix has all but vanished. Aside from reputational damage, he seems to have emerged from the scandal unscathed. He hasn't been issued any personal fines, and no criminal charges have been pressed against him.

Wylie can't say the same for himself. As soon as he turned whistleblower, he was bemused to find himself unceremoniously booted off Facebook and all related products, including Instagram and WhatsApp (as a result he also can't use Tinder). Wylie still hasn't got his accounts back and doesn't know if they still exist out there somewhere on Facebook's servers, or whether they have been deleted and gone forever.

At the time of his suspension, Facebook claimed that Wylie had broken its terms of service and wouldn't cooperate with its investigation. When contacted again this month, the company declined to say anything beyond its previous statements and didn't clarify whether the suspension of his account meant that it still held Wylie's data.

It would be easy to assume that he'd be down on Facebook as a result, but he's not. In fact he hopes some shred of his Facebook life still exists as it's the only place where digital copies of childhood photos still exist. "It's a great invention," he says. "So is TV and electricity. But that doesn't mean that we should build buildings that electrocute people."

I'm desperate to know what would he say to Facebook's CEO if he finally came to face with Zuckerberg. When I ask him, he exclaims without pausing for breath: "Like, dude! What the fuck?"

It's a knee-jerk reaction, but he has a serious answer too. He would want to know why someone who runs a super-profitable and dominant company can't take more time to understand the societies it's effectively monitoring. He doesn't understand why Facebook refuses to listen when it's warned about things such as fake news and ethnic cleansing. "You have this opportunity -- everybody uses you, so why not be the good guy here?"

CEOs of other Silicon Valley tech companies (he won't say which ones) have sought Wylie out to talk. But Facebook and Zuckerberg remain elusive. "I wish that he would invite me to chat," he says. "Not to say that I am the beacon of wisdom for being less evil, but I find the whole thing weird how they make it worse for themselves."

Wylie isn't the only person who'd like to speak with Facebook's chief. The UK Parliament, which is now leading a multinational inquiry involving nine different countries and 24 politicians, has been asking Zuckerberg to give evidence for over a year. If Zuckerberg won't talk to a group that collectively represents around a seventh of the world's population, jokes Wylie, he certainly won't meet with him.

But now standing between Zuckerberg and the politicians who want to question him is none other than one of Wylie's former bosses, ex-British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Facebook hired Clegg in December -- the same time Wylie started at H&M -- as its vice president for global affairs and communications.

Starting in 2010, Wylie worked as a microtargeting and digital campaigns strategist for Clegg's party, the Liberal Democrats. The party's popularity was peaking and the whole country was in the grip of "Cleggmania." As the party's leader, he secured its place in a coalition government with the Conservative Party following the 2010 general election.

But in 2012, Wylie left the Liberal Democrats. He says he found them unwilling to listen to the findings from his team, in particular that Clegg's popularity would take a nosedive if he supported Conservative policies like boosting student tuition fees that were opposed to his own campaign promises.

Wylie was proved right at the 2015 general election when the Liberal Democrats lost all but eight of their 57 parliamentary seats, causing Clegg to resign. Three years later, Wylie blew the whistle on Cambridge Analytica and Facebook hired Clegg. The odd circularity of the situation has left Wylie feeling like he's living in a simulation. "You can't write that shit."  

A fresh start

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He's lighter now.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

When I meet Wylie again this summer, a weight has clearly lifted. He's calmer and more jovial, his face and posture visibly more relaxed while he talks, in spite of a hectic schedule. He travels frequently and splits the rest of his time between London, his home for the last 10 years, and Stockholm.

I point out these changes to him, and he agrees that a year and a half on from the revelations he's much happier. "I do feel a lot lighter," he says. "I feel like I am working on things that I'm not leaking to journalists, but that I'm bragging about to journalists."

And it's fair to say that as much as he enjoys life at H&M, the company likes having him too. "I have to say, genuinely, we are really happy with his work," Moltubak says.

The limited time he has when not shaping the future of the fashion industry is spent baking muffins -- "I've started to become a bit like a grandmother" -- and very occasionally hitting up the bars in Dalston. I get the sense from our time drinking gin and tonics that he makes a good drinking partner. For as much as Wylie appears smart, earnest and passionate, it would be remiss not to point out that he's equally adept with irony, snark and, best of all, humor. He's more than happy to laugh at himself. "I sound like a Valley Girl," he exclaims, telling me people often think he's from California.

For Carroll, the choices Wylie has made about what to do with his life after the Cambridge Analytica scandal is a reflection of how he feels about his role in it. Compared with Kaiser, whose unapologetic revelations doubled as a launch pad to her next career opportunity (forming an organization advocating for decentralized data tech and a financial services firm), Wylie, he says, is "much more overtly remorseful and apologetic -- and explicitly says that."

Where Wylie is headed in the future, though, is a more difficult question. "Girl, I don't even know what I'm doing next month," he says, coming over all easy breezy when I ask him where he sees himself in three years. "The delightful thing about life is that random things come at you and lead you down a path."

One place he won't be, however, is Silicon Valley, even if it may seem a natural place for his talents. "That's not where the good ideas are," he says. "There's probably going to be good ideas and much better ideas about how to treat people from other sectors, other perspectives."

Working in tech isn't the issue -- it's the attitudes and approaches that prevail within the industry that bother him. He believes deeply in the power of tech to be a genuine force for good in the world. 

"The problem is that in Silicon Valley they just have this really bad habit -- and I think it really is a lack of diversity with mostly straight white men, who are privileged and powerful -- to just look at the population as something that you can just experiment on," says Wylie, who identifies as gay. "Humanity has this tendency, unfortunately, of going for the evil thing -- it doesn't have to be like that."

Instead, Wylie is busy pouring his energy in trying to prove that AI can be good. But by publishing a book telling his story, he runs a risk opening up his life to scrutiny again. At this stage in the game, I guess he can handle it. Cambridge Anaytica feels like a distant memory 18 months later. But with the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline approaching and the 2020 US election a year away, the issues that underpinned the scandal -- privacy, fake news and the gigantic influence of social media on democracy -- will only heat up.