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Firm tied to Facebook scandal says its work similar to traditional campaigning

Last Updated Apr 25, 2018 at 8:20 am EDT

Jeff Silvester, left, and Zackary Massingham of AggregateIQ appear as witnesses at the commons privacy and ethics committee in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 24, 2018. The committee is looking into the breach of personal information involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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 they help 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 whistle-blower 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.

“The ads that we show — it’s the digital equivalent of an ad on someone’s lawn or on a street corner,” he told the committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, which has been holding hearings on the scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

“You choose where you want it go, you put your message on there and people drive by and see it. And it’s the same for the Internet and same with going door to door and the same with making phone calls.”

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.

For example, he insisted it enables volunteers to enter voter information they collect on door steps on tablets rather than with paper. It’s more reliable, faster and helps them avoid duplicating efforts during the rush of election campaigns.

“We’ve got nothing to hide — we make websites, we make software and we do online advertising,” Silvester said.

“We’re confident we’ve done nothing wrong and we feel that at the end of this, once everything all works out, that that will come to the fore.”

When asked about his relationship with Wylie, he said the last time he spoke to him was September 2017 when they exchanged pleasantries and had what he called a “great conversation.”

“It’s somewhat baffling to me that he would be saying these things — I don’t know why he’s saying them,” said Silvester, who’s known Wylie since 2005 and helped him land a job in the office of former federal Liberal leader Stephane Dion.

Wylie continued working for the Liberal leader’s office under Michael Ignatieff until 2009, when his contract wasn’t renewed.

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

— with files from Associated Press