OTTAWA — The co-founders of a Canadian company at the centre of the international scandal over the alleged inappropriate use of Facebook data are defending their work in support of political campaigns around the globe.
Speaking to a parliamentary committee, Jeff Silvester of the B.C.-based political advertising firm AggregateIQ says the company helps its customers craft their messages for online political ads and how to effectively make use of data for their campaigns.
But Silvester, the firm’s chief operating officer, insists AggregateIQ does not harvest data and only uses what it is provided — nor does it undertake any kind of voter profiling, including psychographic profiling.
He says the company’s work differs little from what political campaigns in Canada do to promote a candidate or a party, such as putting up lawn signs, sending volunteers to knock on doors and making phone calls.
The Victoria firm has been suspended by Facebook and is under investigation by privacy commissioners in Ottawa, B.C. and the United Kingdom for its role in a controversy that allegedly involved a breach of millions of users’ private information to help the “Leave” side win the U.K.’s 2016 Brexit referendum.
AggregateIQ has also been linked to Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy firm accused of improperly accessing the private Facebook data to help the Leave campaign in Brexit as well as Donald Trump’s winning 2016 U.S. presidential bid.
In his testimony Tuesday, Silvester said AggregateIQ has always complied with laws in Canada and abroad. He also disputed allegations raised by Canadian data expert and whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, saying AggregateIQ has never been part of Cambridge Analytica nor its parent company, SCL.
“We are not data harvesters by any stretch of the imagination and, certainly, we don’t do psychographic profiling or profiling of any other type,” he told the committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, which is holding hearings this month on the data breach involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.
“We’re not psychologists, we’re tech guys.”
Efforts by volunteers and political candidates themselves to persuade voters are no different from the work of AggregateIQ, he added.
“The ads that we show — it’s the digital equivalent of an ad on someone’s lawn or on a street corner,” he said.
“You choose where you want it go, you put your message on there and people drive by and see it. And it’s the same for the internet and same with going door to door and the same with making phone calls.”
Facebook estimates the personal information of 622,161 users in Canada — and nearly 87 million worldwide — was improperly accessed by Cambridge Analytica.
The Canadian Press