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BC Liberal candidate hires consultancy whose role in Brexit is under investigation

BC Liberal leadership candidate Todd Stone speaks during the first leadership debate in Surrey, B.C., on Oct. 15, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Canadian campaign consulting firm whose role in Britain's Brexit vote is under investigation is operating in the leadership contest to replace former B.C. premier Christy Clark.

AggregateIQ Data Services Ltd. has been retained by leadership candidate Todd Stone, and is also seeking a contract with the opposition BC Liberals to help the party to return to power in the next provincial election.

The small Victoria-based agency says in its pitch to the BC Liberals that it "launched and supported" the official Leave campaign that persuaded British voters to choose to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum.

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U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham is looking into AggregateIQ's role in the campaign after Britain's Electoral Commission revealed that the Vote Leave campaign paid the equivalent of $4.6-million to the Canadian company for political work. The commission is examining funding associated with the referendum.

In a blog posted in December, Ms. Denham expressed frustration in her quest, and said she has required assistance from authorities overseas "to seek answers on behalf of U.K. citizens" about how personal information was analyzed to target voters in the campaign. The B.C. Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has confirmed it is working with the U.K. probe, and it is investigating whether AggregateIQ is compliant with B.C.'s private-sector privacy legislation.

No specific allegations of wrongdoing have been made, but in her blog, Ms. Denham said she is concerned about how personal data are used in political campaigns.

"We are concerned about invisible processing – the 'behind the scenes' algorithms, analysis, data matching, profiling that involves people's personal information," she wrote. "When the purpose for using these techniques is related to the democratic process, the case for a high standard of transparency is very strong."

Phone messages left at AggregateIQ's Victoria office were not returned on Thursday.

Mr. Stone's spokesman, Stephen Smart, said in a statement that AggregateIQ is maintaining and marketing "digital campaign assets" for Mr. Stone in the leadership race, adding: "Our campaign maintains complete control of all voter and supporter information that is gathered through the use of these digital tools."

Several leadership candidates were considering using AggregateIQ. But Stephen Carter, campaign manager for leadership candidate Mike de Jong, said his team preferred to steer clear of AggregateIQ because of what he described as a U.S.-style approach to data management. "In the Canadian environment, people have a different understanding of what privacy should look like, so you can get on the wrong side of it without necessarily breaking a law," he said.

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"Every time you are gathering a piece of information in the Canadian context, we have a very high standard, both legally and morally, in terms of how we use it."

Mr. Carter said he hopes the BC Liberal Party will be cautious about hiring AggregateIQ. "I would hope they would evaluate it, and think about using different options."

The Liberals held power for more than 16 years in B.C., but lost ground in the 2017 provincial election, and the NDP formed a minority government with support from the Green Party's three MLAs.

After the election, the BC Liberals invited proposals for a digital fundraising pilot project, and AggragateIQ, which had already worked on three local campaigns for the party, presented a nine-page pitch.

But Ms. Clark resigned as party leader and quit as an MLA in July, and the party has put the decision about the pilot project on hold until after the new leader is chosen on Feb. 3. Six candidates are running for the leadership.

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