Po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing firm de­nies mis­us­ing data

Edmonton Journal - - CANADA - Andy BlAtchford

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.

SEAN KILPATRICK / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

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.

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