UK probing AggregateIQ as part of inquiry into privacy law breach

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie holds a press conference in London in this file image from March, 2018. GETTY IMAGES

Britain’s information commissioner is looking at the work of Victoria-based political data firm AggregateIQ as part of an investigation into whether British digital privacy laws were broken during the Brexit referendum campaign, Global News has learned.

The U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) refused to release records on their examination of AggregateIQ that Global News had requested under British access-to-information laws. The ICO cited provisions allowing it to withhold records if their release “would be likely to prejudice … the purpose of ascertaining whether any person has failed to comply with the law.”

“These purposes apply when the Information Commissioner is considering whether or not to take regulatory action regarding compliance with the Data Protection Act,” the letter said.

“The disclosure of this information would be likely to compromise our ability to investigate and therefore affect the discharge of our regulatory function in vital areas, including our ability to influence the behaviour of data controllers and to take formal action.”

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AggregateIQ offers campaigns a way of marketing themselves to tailored groups of voters using social media. Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee turned whistleblower, has said the two companies are closely connected, a claim AggregateIQ denies on their Web site. Wylie alleges that Cambridge Analytica used data on 50 million Facebook users to target voters during the 2016 U.S. election.

The ICO would not say whether it was investigating possible violations of the Data Protection Act by AggregateIQ, or whether it’s legally possible to violate the act from outside the U.K.

Despite being 7,600 kilometres away from the action, AggregateIQ had a major role in the “Leave” campaign in the U.K.’s Brexit referendum in 2016, in which British voters narrowly decided to leave the European Union.

WATCH: It’s alleged that during Brexit referendum, the “Vote Leave” campaign paid a company in Victoria, called AggregateIQ, millions of dollars, which breaks spending rules. It’s a potential criminal offence. As Jeff Semple reports, the person who helped start AggregateIQ is Christopher Wylie, the Canadian who exposed how Cambridge Analytics used Facebook personal data.
Click to play video: 'Brexit “Vote Leave” campaign allegedly used BC firm to skirt'
Brexit “Vote Leave” campaign allegedly used BC firm to skirt

In April through June of 2016, four Leave-side people and organizations paid a total of £3.5 million (C$6.3 million) to the Victoria company, British campaign donation records show.

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Among them was Darren Grimes, a 23-old London fashion student, who made four payments worth £675,000 ($1.2 million) to AggregateIQ in an eight-day period in June of 2016. Other payments came from Veterans for Britain, a pro-Leave group, Vote Leave Limited, the main Leave campaign, and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Campaign finance disclosure rules in Northern Ireland were much less open than in the rest of the U.K. until recently, making it difficult to see where donations that flow through Northern Ireland come from.

An ocean and a continent away from the referendum campaign, AggregateIQ became by far the best-paid supplier of services to both sides. The No. 2 slot was held by St. Ives, a printing company that did £1.8 million worth of work for the “Remain” campaign.

The Leave campaign was pleased with AggregateIQ’s work. And, until recently, the company’s site featured a quote from Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings saying that ” … without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ. We couldn’t have done it without them.” (It was removed in late March.)

But despite that endorsement and all that money, it’s not well-understood in any level of detail what AggregateIQ did for its pro-Brexit clients, other than precisely directing digital ads to users of platforms like Google and Facebook.

In testimony to a British House of Commons committee in March, Wylie said that AggregateIQ had built a computer system called Ripon for U.S. Republican candidates, which used Facebook data to target ads to specific voters.

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AggregateIQ co-founders Jeff Silvester and Zack Massingham did not respond to a request for comment.

“AggregateIQ works in full compliance within all legal and regulatory requirements in all jurisdictions where it operates,” says a statement on the company’s Web site. “It has never knowingly been involved in any illegal activity.”

WATCH: Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, alleged Tuesday that “cheating” by Vote Leave campaigners may have swayed the result of Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum.
Click to play video: 'Cambridge Analytica Canadian whistleblower alleges Vote Leave ‘cheating’ may have affected Brexit result'
Cambridge Analytica Canadian whistleblower alleges Vote Leave ‘cheating’ may have affected Brexit result

British election officials are investigating whether money paid to AggregateIQ was transferred between Vote Leave Limited, Grimes and Veterans for Britain in ways that were compliant with British election finance law.

In March, U.K. Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, told the Guardian that “AggregateIQ has not been especially co-operative with our investigation.”

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AggregateIQ also did political work for U.S. Republican campaigns in 2016, Wylie said, and for B.C. Liberal candidates and the provincial Green Party.

It’s not clear why so much Brexit-related work was steered AggregateIQ’s way. Until mid-2016, the company had a very basic Web site, and until 2014 it was being run from a house in Saanich, B.C.

Incoming B.C. privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy has spent the last six months in Britain at the ICO’s office, working with their investigation of the Brexit campaign.

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