The Canadian and British political consulting firms in the eye of a global storm over alleged data misuse started their collaboration with a plan to acquire internet-browsing histories from citizens of a Caribbean country, records obtained by The Globe and Mail reveal.
The 2013 partnership between Britain’s SCL Group − a forerunner to Cambridge Analytica − and Canada’s AggregateIQ was first set in Trinidad and Tobago. This project’s ambitions would serve as a prelude to the Facebook and Brexit data controversies that came to light this month.
Records obtained by The Globe show that the Trinidad plan involved a bid to gather data − in bulk − from an internet-service provider (ISP) in the island country of 1.3 million people. The stated goal of this paid work was to use psychological profiling of voters to improve the fortunes of a Trinidadian political party.
It’s not clear whether the plan actually resulted in any handover of data. But two academics who reviewed one record obtained by The Globe expressed concern about the data-gathering strategies, saying it appears the companies were attempting to circumvent privacy considerations and more legitimate forms of data purchasing.
“There’s a number of ways this is violating the principle of informed consent − an ISP selling their data in aggregate?” said Concordia University’s Fenwick McKelvey, who studies privacy issues. “You just couldn’t in Canada.”
On Tuesday, Canadian whistle-blower Chris Wylie, once closely tied to the consulting firms, appeared before a parliamentary committee in Britain.
He told the story of how, as a young Canadian transplanted to Britain, he went to work for SCL Group. And that he encouraged his more tech-savvy friends in Victoria to set up AggregateIQ as a kind of adjunct to the British entity.
But now, Mr. Wylie is publicly criticizing both companies, including their work in developing countries. “This is what modern-day colonialism looks like,” he told the committee. Citing activities in Trinidad, he alleged that AggregateIQ is “a company that goes out and tries to acquire live internet-browsing data of everyone in a country.”
The context of this charge is described more fully in detailed documents Mr. Wylie provided to The Globe after consulting with his lawyers.
AggregateIQ did not respond to questions that The Globe sent Wednesday about its role in the Trinidad and Tobago campaign. This week it has released statements saying that it always respects laws.
“AggregateIQ works in full compliance within all legal and regulatory requirements in all jurisdictions where it operates. It has never knowingly been involved in any illegal activity.“
In August, 2013, Mr. Wylie sent an e-mail to Jeff Silvester, the future co-founder of AggregateIQ. He told him he was looking for help. “You need a Canadian Office,” was the reply from Mr. Silvester.
The two men had both volunteered for MP Keith Martin and the federal Liberal Party, where they had honed their interest in data-driven election campaigns.
AggregateIQ was incorporated in November, 2013, and, within days, had a $200,000 contract to support SCL Group’s work in Trinidad and Tobago.
Much of the work involved mundane campaign activity such as coming up with standard software that could be used to help motivate volunteers, canvassers and voters. But, there was also an unusual e-mail exchange between AggregateIQ, SCL Group and Mr. Wylie titled “ISP requests.”
E-mails indicate that, on Dec. 6, a representative from Britain’s SCL Group said he was trying to communicate with a company in Trinidad. He e-mailed AggregateIQ back in Canada, to fill them in on how his “schmoozing” attempts were working.
According to the exchange with AggregateIQ, the consultant for the SCL Group relayed that he knew of at least one ISP in Trinidad that could potentially sell customer data. But he also added that he could write to the company suggesting that the data would not be used for political purposes.
“We are doing an international research project on Internet connectivity and how it impacts social mobility,” is what his proposed message to the company said. “As part of our research, we would be very keen to purchase the data that [the ISP] holds on its customers use of the Internet.”
He said he would specifically ask for data tables that could tie specific internet protocol addresses to specific billing addresses, without naming the customers. He also relayed to AggregateIQ that he would request “historical snapshots of HTTP server request referenced to anonymized billing addresses.” According to Mr. McKelvey and other academics, this amounts to a request for the ISP to provide any logs of people’s browsing history.
It’s not clear how such data could help a political campaign, but, according to the released record, the SCL consultant in Trinidad planned to tell the internet company such data could help study the “educational outcome of children, etc.”
The answer that came back from AggregateIQ, according to this e-mail chain, was “great work.” AIQ co-founder Zack Massingham then replied that more detailed information was better. “If the billing addresses are obfuscated, we’ll have a difficult time relating things back to a real person or household.”
Later that same month, in December, 2013, the SCL Group carved out an overseas elections arm it called Cambridge Analytica. The following spring, that company worked with a Cambridge University academic named Aleksandr Kogan to acquire a large dataset of personal information drawn from tens of millions of Facebook users.
At the time, the social-media giant was giving academics preferred access to its data holdings. But, after revelations by Mr. Wylie this month, Facebook released a statement saying it had been “lied to” by Dr. Kogan.
Facebook alleges that he wrongly passed the dataset along to political consultants, including Mr. Wylie, Cambridge Analytica and the SCL Group.