A tech entrepreneur appointed by the BC Liberals to the B.C. Lottery Corporation’s board of directors helped set-up a company that is associated with the Victoria political consultancy implicated in the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal, theBreaker has learned.
AggregageIQ (AIQ) was a key, behind-the-scenes contractor for campaigns for the separation of the United Kingdom from the European Union and the U.S. Republican Party, but is now under investigation by privacy authorities in British Columbia and the United Kingdom.
During AIQ chief operating officer Jeff Silvester’s testimony to the U.K. Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on May 16, chair Damian Collins asked Silvester for “a little bit about your relationship… and the sort of work you do” with three companies. One of them is called Adreach Networks.
Replied Silvester: “Adreach is a company in Victoria. They are folks that we work with frequently to run ads.”
The only name listed on Adreach Networks’ provincial statement of registration, filed May 26, 2015, is Matthew G. Watson at a residential address near Cadboro Bay. Watson is the executive chair of SendtoNews Video, which packages highlights of news and sports events for broadcasters and websites. The registration was, coincidentally, less than a month before the June 23, 2016 referendum vote in the U.K. in which AIQ was paid the equivalent of $5.4 million by the winning Vote Leave campaign.
The corporate filing said the business started on Jan. 1, 2015 and the nature of its business was described on the form as “Internet publishing and broadcast and web search portals.”
The only member of the sole proprietorship listed on the filing was 1023321 B.C. Ltd., a numbered company with an address in the same Market Square office complex in downtown Victoria where AIQ was located. The numbered company eventually became Helmkin Digital Ltd. Adreach’s registration dissolved May 5, 2017.
When Mike de Jong was the BC Liberal Finance Minister and responsible for gambling, he appointed Watson to the BCLC board in December 2015 for a term ending Dec. 31, 2017. Watson was chair of the board’s governance and corporate social responsibility committee and received $14,250 in meeting fees for the year ended March 31, 2017.
Watson was not reappointed by the B.C. NDP government to the BCLC board when his term expired at the end of 2017. His seat was left temporarily vacant amid the casino money laundering scandal.
Also last fall, NDP Health Minister Adrian Dix replaced Watson on the board of Vancouver Island Health Authority with Ron Mattson, a senior manager in the Health Ministry who was among those wrongly fired in the bungled 2012 investigation of an alleged data breach.
theBreaker sought comment from Watson and AIQ’s Silvester and co-founder/CEO Jeff Massingham about Adreach Networks. None of them responded.
Watson was a guest of the BC Liberal government in the Legislature on June 27, 2013, when de Jong tabled the post-election budget. Watson sat next to Premier Christy Clark behind the government benches. Clark had been defeated in the spring election by David Eby in Vancouver-Point Grey and, later that summer, returned as an MLA when she won a by-election in Kelowna.
The Elections BC database lists a Matthew Watson as the donor of $510 to the BC Liberals in 2011. (Another, younger Matthew Watson, who is a software developer, donated $450 to the BC Greens in 2017.) Carmanah Technologies Inc. gave $3,250 to the BC Liberals in 2005-2006 and 2017. Watson was Carmanah’s COO until August 2006.
During the U.K. committee hearing, Silvester did not disclose any AIQ client names and was similarly cagey about AIQ’s revenue and corporate structure. He did admit to the committee that the company had two minority owners, but he did not give any hint about their names.
In its June 19 report, the Canadian House of Commons’ Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee said it “does not concur with AIQ’s version of the facts, as the witnesses’ testimony is inconsistent, full of contradictions, and conflicts with the testimony of several other reliable witnesses.”
Conservative, Liberal and NDP members of the committee, however, trusted the judgment of U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who said AIQ was not cooperating with her investigation.
Silvester and Massingham appeared on April 24 and were called for a followup hearing in June. Massingham was absent for the second hearing and the committee is considering a contempt of Parliament complaint against him.
“The [Cambridge Analytica/Facebook] scandal has brought to light issues relating to mass data harvesting, the use of data for nefarious purposes, and the threats and challenges these questionable methods can create for democracies around the world,” the House of Commons’ report said. “The evidence that the committee has heard so far gives rise to grave concerns that the Canadian democratic and electoral process is similarly vulnerable to improper acquisition and manipulation of personal data.”
During his April 24 committee testimony, Massingham described AIQ as an “an online advertising website and software development company.” Silvester said it is not a big data or data analytics company and denied that AIQ harvests data or practices “the so-called digital dark arts.”
In B.C., AIQ has worked for BC Liberal campaigns, including Mike de Jong’s riding re-election and Todd Stone’s failed leadership bid, and for the B.C. Greens.
Stone was seen as a frontrunner by many, until voting week when nearly 1,400 memberships were cancelled after AIQ created domain names and email addresses for new members recruited in Richmond’s Chinese community and Surrey’s South Asian community.
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