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HomeMiscellanyVictoria political agency broke privacy code, but toothless law means no fines for AggregateIQ

Victoria political agency broke privacy code, but toothless law means no fines for AggregateIQ

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Bob Mackin

The Victoria political advertising company that worked on digital campaigns for BC Liberals Todd Stone and Mike de Jong, and made worldwide news for its role in the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, broke privacy laws.

B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy (left) and federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien (Mackin)

That is the conclusion of a joint report released Nov. 26 in Vancouver by British Columbia and Canada’s privacy watchdogs.

They say AggregateIQ failed to gain consent for the collection, use or disclosure of personal information when it worked for SCL Group, the Vote Leave Campaign in the Brexit referendum and on provincial and municipal campaigns in B.C.

“With AIQ we now have a Canadian player playing a key role in the troubling ecosystem of political campaigning in the digital era,” said Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien. “This is too close for comfort.”

Therrien and B.C. counterpart Michael McEvoy also found found AIQ failed to properly secure the personal information of 35 million voters in the U.K., U.S. and B.C. 

“While we found that some of AIQ’s services were covered by the consent of individuals, in many other instances, they were not,” McEvoy said. “This includes microtargeted online profiling using social media which was clearly not based on consent. Most concerning was AIQ’s work in the U.S. [to identify Republican voters.]”

McEvoy described AIQ’s data-crunching machine that contained a “whole panoply” of information gained from vendors, such as age, ethnicity, religion, magazine subscriptions, home, vehicle and gun ownership, marital and parental status of voters. All highly valuable for those jockeying for power.

AIQ also obtained psychographic profiles or scores for millions of voters that were derived, in part, from the Facebook user data collected by data scientist Aleksandr Kogan’s app for Cambridge Analytica.

“AIQ stated that it never received the raw Facebook user data collected by Kogan,” said the 29-page report. “However, documents uncovered during our investigation demonstrate that AIQ was made aware that SCL was using data collected from Kogan. The documents also disclose that AIQ was fully aware they were using voters’ OCEAN scores.”

Silvester (left) and Massingham of AggregateIQ (ParlVu)

For clients in B.C., AIQ developed websites and targeted digital advertising, supported campaign websites on the NationBuilder platform and piloted a proprietary tool for a client.

The company was involved in the re-election campaign for Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong, who was the minister responsible for information and privacy before the BC Liberals were defeated in June 2017.

Former Transportation Minister Todd Stone was a client during his unsuccessful leadership bid in 2018. On the eve of the vote, more than 1,300 party memberships that his camp sold were cancelled. AIQ had created fake email addresses for use in online voting. Most of the cancelled memberships were sold in Richmond’s Chinese community and Surrey’s South Asian community.

The Nov. 26 report said AIQ services for a St. John’s, Newfoundland mayoral campaign included robocalls, mass-email and telephone surveys. But its most-famous work was for Vote Leave and BeLeave, the pro-Brexit campaigns that won the 2016 referendum on the U.K.’s European Union membership.

McEvoy did not include names in the report, because the focus was on AIQ, not its clients. McEvoy and Therrien concluded the matter to be “well founded and conditionally resolved.” AIQ co-operated with the investigation and the company committed to implement their recommendations for compliance. AIQ will be subject to followup in six months.

McEvoy, however, rued the lack of penalty for breaking the law and renewed his calls for the B.C. government to enact fines.

“There are no fines because we do not have the authority to levy fines, to be clear, that is an authority we believe regulators in Canada should have,” McEvoy said. “My office should have it to act as a deterrent, to ensure that the public knows somebody is looking after their interests and make sure somebody has their back.”

Nothing nefarious about political ads, says AIQ exec

An executive of AIQ did not agree that the company benefited from a lack of fine.

AggregateIQ website

“It doesn’t feel to me that there is no penalty,” said COO Jeff Silvester, who lamented that the investigation took two years.

“We have cooperated throughout the whole process. It probably would have been cheaper to not cooperate, but that’s not how we do business.”

Silvester was referring to the federal law, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, which includes a fine up to $100,000 for obstructing the Commissioner’s investigation. Silvester and Zack Massingham started the company in 2013. Massingham had worked on de Jong’s 2011 leadership campaign. Silvester is a former aide to Liberal and Reform MP Keith Martin.

Asked how the investigation affected AIQ’s client roster and revenue, Silvester said it was “difficult to quantify.” He was cagey on staff numbers, but said some full-timers have converted to part-time or contractor status. He said the ongoing investigation had to be disclosed to potential new clients. It scared some away.

“We definitely lost some clients through this and we also maintained some, and we’ve added new ones since,” he said. “Now I can share that [report] with potential clients and they can make up their minds if they want to work with us or not.”

Silvester said the company had no clients in the recent Canadian federal election and is not working with anybody involved in the upcoming U.K. election.

“The [investigation] process itself is a bit broken,” he said. “It didn’t have to be adversarial, we were happy to give them everything they had asked for and we did. it could have been a lot easier for both sides. Two years is a long time to wait for the report.”

Though Silvester is reluctant to identify clients in an interview, he said he provided B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner with a list of “everyone we’ve worked with, for all-time, he looked at every client that we have ever had.”

Mike de Jong on Facebook during the 2017 election

Silvester said he does not regret any client work or outcomes of the client work, but he disagrees with critics of the digital political advertising game.

“Just because a politician wants to share their message with as many people as possible in the most effective way, that is somehow nefarious? What we do is help our clients to get their message out to the people who need to hear it, most effectively.”

During testimony in early 2018, whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who hails from Victoria, had called AIQ a franchise of SCL. In the interview, Silvester remained emphatic that his company is 100% Canadian-owned, the only directors are Massingham and him, and they are two of the three co-owners [Chris Shannon being the other].

“We make every decision for our company and there’s no one that can tell us what to do,” Silvester said. “We have no obligations to any other company, anywhere.”

Massingham’s testimony in September 2018 to the House of Commons information and ethics committee revealed that there was another tech expert involved with the company. He used the words “mentor” and “shareholder” to describe Matthew Watson, the chair and CEO of Victoria-headquartered sports highlights service SendtoNews.

Silvester clarified that Watson’s involvement was primarily during the company’s launch in 2013. Like Massingham in his committee testimony, however, Silvester did not say when Watson ceased to be a shareholder.

“He gave us advice in the early days, we did thank him by giving him some shares, but he ended up returning those shares and he’s not had any role in any of the stuff we’re dealing with now,” Silvester said. “His involvement now is nothing and in the early days was quite limited. Obviously we’re thankful for the help because we had no idea at the time. In terms of day-to-day, no he’s not involved.” 

Silvester said the company remains suspended from Facebook, but does offer advice to clients on how they can deal directly with Facebook.

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