The two principals of the Victoria company linked to the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica privacy breach scandal finally broke their silence on April 24.
Zackary Massingham and Jeff Silvester might be wishing they stayed home, after several Members of Parliament accused them of being dishonest about various aspects of their company, AggregateIQ.
AIQ’s roles in the Brexit campaign in 2016 and U.S. Presidential campaign in 2017 are under investigation by privacy authorities in Canada and the United Kingdom. In his opening statement, Massingham described AIQ as “an online advertising website and software development company” and Silvester likened it to the digital version of burma shaving for political candidates.
“We are not a big data company, we are not a data analytics company, we do not harvest or otherwise illegally obtain data,” Silvester said. “We never share information from one client to another, and we are not a practitioner of the so-called digital dark arts.”
Massingham and Silvester denied their company was a subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica or SCL Group, but members of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics didn’t buy it.
“I just would say, as the chair of this committee, I know we’re all saying the same thing and we’re all concerned: something doesn’t smell right here,” concluded chair Bob Zimmer (Conservative, Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies). “I would challenge AIQ to do the right thing.”
One by one, MPs took turns challenging AIQ’s credibility and doubting the sincerity of Massingham and Silvester.
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Liberal, Beaches-East York) said he had just received a text message from Damian Collins, a member of a similar parliamentary committee in the U.K., who contradicted Silvester’s claims that the company is cooperating with the Information Commissioner’s Office in the U.K.
Collins’s text message quoted commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who said AIQ had refused to answer her questions.
Silvester claimed that Denham wrote a letter to AIQ last May and they replied the next week, but didn’t hear from her again until the end of January this year.
Said Frank Baylis (Liberal, Pierrefonds-Dollard): “You have purposely misled us, Mr. Silvester, you have just purposely misled us to the point that someone would contact us during your questioning, and say you refused. You did not say you refused. [Denham] said you refused.”
“We answered the questions the best we could do,” Silvester said. “And that’s all we can do. Each time we’ve responded.”
NDP’s Charlie Angus (NDP, Timmins—James Bay) challenged them to be transparent, because they were protected by parliamentary privilege.
“You can’t be sued for what you say, Mr. Massingham, they can’t use it against you in court,” Angus said. “So I’m not sure why you expect us to believe that all these people are making stuff up about you when you could just explain to us why you were set up with SCL and what your direct role is with SCL and Cambridge Analytica. The idea that this is all a series of isolated companies that had nothing to do with each other, you didn’t know each other, but you just happened to be working on all the same projects and you were listed as SCL Canada. Why are you taking the fall for these guys?”
“I can’t speak to what marketing materials they’ve put our or what they do with my contact information,” Massingham said. “But I can tell you we are not part of SCL or Cambridge Analytica.”
Whistleblower Christopher Wylie, also from Victoria, called AIQ a Cambridge Analytica franchise when he testified March 27 in London. Wylie and Silvester had worked in the Liberal Party of Canada. Massingham’s past includes work on BC Liberal Mike de Jong’s first failed attempt at the leadership. Wylie alleged that AIQ was a “proxy money laundering vehicle” for the Vote Leave campaign in 2016.
On the latter point, Erskine-Smith asked Silvester if he found it strange that AIQ received £625,000 from Vote Leave to spend on behalf of the Beleave group during the referendum on the U.K.’s membership in the European Union.
“Did you not think that was strange in the context that if they spent it on behalf of Vote Leave themselves they would have gone over the [legal] limit. Did this not raise any flags for you at the time?”
Replied Silvester: “When they asked us to do the work we sent an invoice to Beleave, then they let us know it was going to be paid by Vote Leave. We then that was odd to us that Vote Leave was making a donation.”
Zimmer asked the last question, where AIQ had ever been “part of or involved in coordinating or organizing multiple clients’ ads for the same or similar campaign, yes or no?”
Silvester replied “No, I don’t believe so.”
In the months before the scandal erupted, AIQ had been involved in the unsuccessful Todd Stone campaign for leadership of the BC Liberals. The Tyee also reported that AIQ worked on three BC Liberal riding campaigns for the May 2017 election, after a contract with the BC Greens in 2016.
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