Victoria firm AggregateIQ denies link to data-miner at heart of Facebook controversy

One of the founders of a small Victoria technology company has denied claims that it is linked to Cambridge Analytica, the data-mining company at the centre of the Facebook privacy controversy.

Jeff Silvester, chief operating officer of AggregateIQ in Victoria, said Saturday that there is no link.

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“AggregateIQ has never been, and is not a part of, Cambridge Analytica or SCL [parent firm of Cambridge]. AggregateIQ has never entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytica,” Silvester wrote in an email, answering a query from the Times Colonist.

He was responding to a report published in a British newspaper quoting Victoria-raised Chris Wylie, who blew the whistle on the psychological tool allegedly used by Cambridge Analytica to manipulate voters through social media. Information from 50 million Facebook users was used to develop the tool.

> For more on the Facebook controversy, go to timescolonist.com/more

Wylie told the Observer newspaper that he was a central player in setting up AggregateIQ, a company that had a pivotal role in trying to shape the Brexit outcome.

“AIQ wouldn’t exist without me,” Wylie said in the article published Saturday.

But Silvester painted a different picture, saying Wylie never had a role in AggregateIQ. Silvester said neither Cambridge Analytica nor its parent, SCL, were involved in his company’s Brexit work.

Wylie told the Observer: “When I became research director for SCL, we needed to rapidly expand our technical capacity and I reached out to a lot of people I had worked with in the past.”

Wylie said he contacted Silvester, whom he knew through federal Liberal Party circles in Victoria, and suggested Silvester work for the firm in London, according to the Observer; but Silvester wanted to stay in Canada.

The Observer quoted an email from Aug. 11, 2013, that Wylie sent to Silvester about SCL.

“We mostly do psychological warfare work for NATO,” he said. “But a lot of projects involve a socio-political element.”

“You need a Canadian office,” Silvester replied.

Authorities in Britain and the U.S. are investigating Cambridge Analytica over allegations the firm improperly obtained data from 50 million Facebook users and used it to manipulate elections, including the 2016 White House race.

Both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook deny wrongdoing.

Wylie told the Observer that AggregateIQ was essentially a “department” of SCL and Cambridge Analytica, and “a Canadian entity for people who wanted to work on SCL projects who didn’t want to move to London. That’s how AIQ got started: Originally to service SCL and Cambridge Analytica projects.”

The two businesses shared the same underlying technology and AIQ managed Cambridge Analytica’s technology platform and databases, Wylie told the Observer.

Silvester is emphatic in saying that’s not true. “Chris Wylie has never been employed by or had a role in AggregateIQ. AggregateIQ works in full compliance within all legal and regulatory requirements in all jurisdictions where it operates. It has never knowingly been involved in any illegal activity. All work AggregateIQ does for each client is kept separate from every other client.”

Silvester has acknowledged knowing Wylie from both the federal Liberal Party and from contract work AggregateIQ did for SCL in 2014. AggregateIQ, which describes itself as a digital advertising, web and software development company, was founded in 2013 by Silvester and Zack Massingham.

Since finishing its contract work for SCL, AggregateIQ has had no contact with that company, Silvester said.

On Saturday, the Times Colonist asked Silvester to comment directly on a list of Wylie’s statements relating to the connection between AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica.

In an email, Silvester called the Observer’s characterization of the business “unfair and factually incorrect,” but did not directly respond to Wylie’s claims.

“As the matter is with our lawyers, we are unable to comment further on the specifics of that story,” he said.

What’s not in dispute is that much of the Leave side’s spending in the run-up to the June 2016 Brexit vote was funnelled through AggregateIQ for online advertising.

That included £2.7 million from the official Vote Leave group, £100,000 from Veterans For Britain, £32,000 from the Democratic Unionist Party and £675,000 from Darren Grimes, a 23-year-old fashion student who led a group named BeLeave.

The Veterans and Grimes money (save for £50,000 to Grimes from an individual donor) came from Vote Leave, which was nearing its £7-million spending limit under British referendum rules. The U.K.’s electoral commission first said there was nothing wrong with that, but then reopened an investigation in November 2017. The question is whether Vote Leave dictated how the money was spent, which would have been against election rules.

Silvester told the Times Colonist in February 2017 that AggregateIQ had made sure to do nothing wrong from its end.

“We follow all the rules.”

AggregateIQ is one of 30 groups being questioned by U.K. information commissioner Elizabeth Denham as part of an investigation on the use of data analytics for political purposes. B.C.’s deputy information and privacy commissioner, Michael McEvoy, has spent six months helping Denham with her investigation

B.C.’s privacy watchdog has a separate investigation into whether AggregateIQ broke private-sector privacy laws.

Denham, a Victorian who formerly held a similar post in B.C., told the Observer that “AggregateIQ has not been especially co-operative with our investigation. We are taking further steps in that matter.”

Silvester disputed that in an email statement.

“AggregateIQ is and always has been co-operating fully with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) for B.C. and with the U.K.’s information commissioner Elizabeth Denham,” Silvester said.

“As I’m sure you’ll understand, given the ongoing nature of these agencies’ activities, it would be inappropriate to speculate or comment further.”

AggregateIQ recently vacated its Market Square office; Silvester said the company is relocating.

On Friday, more than a dozen investigators from Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office raided Cambridge Analytica’s central London office, armed with a warrant granted by a High Court judge.

Britain’s information regulator said Saturday it was assessing evidence gathered from the raid as part of an investigation into alleged misuse of personal information by political campaigns and social-media companies such as Facebook.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

— With files from Jack Knox and the Associated Press

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