Cambridge Analytica saga ensnares a tiny Canadian data shop

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(Bloomberg) -- A tiny data analytics firm in a quiet provincial capital in Canada’s far west has found itself at the center of the scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s role in U.K. and U.S. elections.

AggregateIQ, based in Victoria, British Columbia, is alleged by former Cambridge Analytica employee-turned-whistleblower Christopher Wylie to be the technology behind Cambridge Analytica’s work in using social media data to help win elections. AggregateIQ firmly denies it’s owned or directed by Cambridge Analytica.

AggregateIQ is a small data analytics firm with about a dozen employees listed on LinkedIn. It was founded by two western Canadian political staffers, Jeff Silvester and Zackary Massingham. Silvester worked for a federal member of parliament from the Victoria area, while Massingham campaigned for Mike de Jong, a former provincial minister who earlier this year was running to lead British Columbia’s opposition Liberal party.

According to Wylie, who has spoken publicly to various media organizations, he wanted to hire Silvester and Massingham to work for SCL Elections, a subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL Group, in London. But the two didn’t want to move, according to Wylie, who said he then encouraged them to set up AggregateIQ as a separate company to which SCL could contract work.

“100% Canadian”

Cambridge Analytica said it subcontracted some digital marketing and software development to AggregateIQ in 2014 and 2015. The suggestion that Cambridge Analytica was somehow involved in any work done by Aggregate IQ in the 2016 EU referendum is entirely false, the company said.

On March 24, Silvester said in a statement on the firm’s website that it’s “100 percent Canadian owned,” and has never been a part of Cambridge Analytica.

Wylie essentially describes AggregateIQ as the software back-office for Cambridge Analytica. The technology it worked on was used in both the campaign for the U.K. to leave the European Union and by U.S. President Donald Trump’s team during the 2016 election, Wylie told the Guardian, which says it’s also seen documents proving the link.

Vote Leave, the movement that led the successful Brexit campaign, spent 3.9 million pounds ($5.5 million) on AggregateIQ, a significant portion of its digital budget, according to the Guardian. Vote Leave also allegedly funneled 625,000 pounds through another pro-Brexit group, BeLeave, to pay for additional services from AggregateIQ. Lawyers working for Wylie have alleged that Vote Leave did this to illegally avoid election spending caps, a charge that people involved in both Vote Leave and BeLeave have denied.

Nigerian ElectionIn testimony to a U.K. parliamentary committee Tuesday, Wylie claimed that AggregateIQ worked with Cambridge Analytica to try to influence the Nigerian presidential election in 2015. Wylie said that AIQ distributed "incredibly anti-Islamic and threatening messages portraying Muslims as violent" -- including videos of violent executions -- during the Nigerian election, in order to turn voters against Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim who at the time was challenging incumbent Goodluck Jonathan.

Cambridge Analytica and the Leave campaign have distanced themselves from one another, but if a clear link is proven between them, it shows that the firm at the center of the current firestorm was actually intimately involved in the successful Brexit campaign too.

Last week, a cybersecurity researcher found a depository of AggregateIQ’s software on code-sharing website GitHub, Gizmodo reported. There appear to be links between AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica in those files, including references to Cambridge Analytica’s "Ripon" political campaign platform and text relating to Ted Cruz’s Republican presidential campaign, which was also a Cambridge Analytica customer.

Canadian Connections

There are also some questions about AggregateIQ’s local work. Todd Stone, who ran earlier this year for the leadership of the B.C. Liberal party, contracted the firm to do some work for him, but his campaign had to delete emails of potential voters because they may have been faked by AggregateIQ. The campaign said it was an innocent mistake, according to Victoria’s Times Colonist newspaper.

The campaign for De Jong didn’t use AggregateIQ in the leadership race because of its approach to data privacy, Canada’s Globe and Mail reported in January citing de Jong’s campaign strategist.

Neither de Jong nor Stone won the election.

What Happens Now

AggregateIQ is under investigation in the U.K. for its involvement in the Brexit referendum. It’s alleged that the firm took money from different pro-Brexit groups who legally should have disclosed the payment. British Columbia’s privacy watchdog is also investigating.

"We have jurisdiction to investigate organizations that operate in B.C., even if the data involves individuals outside of B.C.," the agency said in an emailed response to questions. "This investigation is independent of the U.K. ICO’s investigation into Cambridge Analytica and Facebook."

U.S. politicians have called for investigations into Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data from more than 50 million people without their knowledge. If the link between AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica is proven, the Canadian firm could get pulled into the U.S. investigation too.

--With assistance from Nate Lanxon

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