Political consulting firm denies misusing data
OTTAWA • The co-founders of a Canadian firm tied to the international Facebook data controversy argued Tuesday that their seven-employee political consultancy has never broken the law — and only offers electoral support comparable to traditional door-knocking, phone canvassing and lawn signs.
In testimony before a parliamentary committee, Jeff Silvester of B.C.-based AggregateIQ also insisted his company’s services, which he said include digital ads, website creation and software development, are already widely used by Canada’s major political parties.
“We are not data harvesters by any stretch of the imagination and, certainly, we don’t do psychographic profiling or profiling of any other type,” he told the House of Commons committee.
“We’re not psychologists, we’re tech guys.”
Silvester also described AggregateIQ’s services as straightforward, saying it helps political customers craft messages for online political ads and to effectively manage data that they’ve already collected themselves.
“We are not a practitioner of the so-called digital dark arts,” he said.
In recent weeks, however, allegations have surfaced that say the firm has been involved in something much bigger.
The appearance by Silvester, AggregateIQ’s chief operating officer, and CEO Zack Massingham came a couple of weeks after their Victoria firm was suspended by social-media giant Facebook following reports of its alleged connection to British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.
AggregateIQ is also under investigation by privacy commissioners in Ottawa, B.C. and the United Kingdom for its alleged role in the controversy that has engulfed Cambridge Analytica, which has been accused of improperly using private Facebook information from millions of users to influence voters and give the “Leave” side a win in the U.K.’s 2016 Brexit referendum.
Cambridge Analytica has also been accused of using private Facebook data to help Donald Trump’s winning 2016 U.S. presidential bid.
The Cambridge Analytica controversy has forced policy-makers and regulators around the globe to consider how to better protect users’ online data. Facebook estimates the personal information of 622,161 users in Canada — and nearly 87 million worldwide — was accessed by Cambridge Analytica without authorization.
AggregateIQ was connected to the scandal following allegations made by Canadian data expert and whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who was once a friend and colleague of Silvester and Massingham.
Wylie worked for Cambridge Analytica.
Last month, Wylie told the media committee of the British Parliament that he believed AggregateIQ drew on Cambridge Analytica’s databases when it worked on the Leave campaign. He said the data could have been used to micro-target voters in the narrow referendum that eventually produced a win for the campaign fighting for Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Wylie said it was “incredibly reasonable” to say that AggregateIQ had a very significant role in the Leave side’s victory. He also told Britain’s Observer newspaper that the companies shared underlying technology and had a working relationship so tight that Cambridge Analytica staff often referred to the Canadian firm as a “department.”
On Tuesday, while under questioning by MPs, Silvester maintained his company did contract work for Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL, but that it had never been part of either firm.
AggregateIQ has never violated laws in Canada or abroad, nor does it retain or share any data provided to it by clients, he said.
Silvester compared AggregateIQ’s work to the campaign efforts of volunteers and of political candidates themselves to woo voters.
MPs peppered Silvester and Massingham with questions about allegations of their firm’s connection to Cambridge Analytica. Many committee members seemed unconvinced by the responses.
“I just would say as the chair of this committee ... I think we’re all saying the same thing and we’re all concerned — something doesn’t smell right here,” said committee chair Bob Zimmer, a Conservative MP.
In a news conference that followed the committee meeting, Silvester told reporters his company creates software for clients that’s similar to tools designed for and used by Canada’s three major political parties.
Jeff Silvester, left, and Zack Massingham of AggregateIQ appear as witnesses at the Commons privacy and ethics committee in Ottawa on Tuesday. The committee is looking into the breach of personal information involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.