The leaders of a small Victoria company at the centre of a global political scandal involving alleged misspending and dirty tricks in the 2016 Brexit referendum insist they did nothing wrong.
Speaking publicly for the first time, the two founders of AggregateIQ (AIQ) – Jeff Silvester and Zack Massingham – told MPs in Ottawa that their work for Vote Leave was standard and legal campaign fare.
“In the end, it will all come out that we’ve not done anything wrong,” Mr. Silvester told reporters at a news conference after the two-hour committee appearance.
The company officials told MPs their work involves placing online political ads and helping campaigns manage standard voter databases.
“We’re not data harvesters, by any stretch of the imagination. And certainly, we don’t do psychographic profiling or profiling of any other type. We’re not psychologists, we’re tech people and we place ads,” Mr. Silvester told MPs.
That repeated rejection of the allegations against them – that AIQ was used to help pro-Brexit factions evade campaign finance limits – left MPs on the access to information, privacy and ethics committee frustrated and suggesting they were not getting the truth.
“Something doesn’t smell right here,” Conservative MP and committee chair Bob Zimmer concluded at the end of the meeting. “I would challenge AIQ to do the right thing.”
The meeting in Ottawa took place on the same day as Britain’s digital, culture, media and sports committee continued its hearings on the same topic, which is the alleged misuse of Facebook data for political purposes.
The academic at the centre of the scandal, Aleksandr Kogan, told MPs that researchers at the University of Toronto also had access to some of the Facebook data. Dr. Kogan developed an app that harvested information from more than 80 million Facebook users and he sold the information to Cambridge Analytica.
Cambridge Analytica is a division of British consulting firm SCL Group. Canadian whistle-blower Chris Wylie helped launch Cambridge Analytica and has said AIQ was known as SCL Canada, although AIQ insists they simply performed contract work for SCL.
Dr. Kogan didn’t name the U of T researchers, but said they received “some derivative information, for example, of psychological trait predictions” for research purposes. Dr. Kogan, who held a postdoctoral fellowship at U of T from 2011 to 2012, added that he believed the university’s researchers had destroyed the data as requested by Facebook.
Cambridge Analytica approached Dr. Kogan around 2014, largely because of his work at Cambridge University, which focused on predicting personality traits from page likes on Facebook.
Dr. Kogan told the committee he had no idea Cambridge Analytica planned to use the data he gathered for targeted political advertising, saying it wouldn’t work for that purpose.
He said using Facebook’s ad platforms would be far more effective and that the information he gathered would have been useless for targeted advertising. “The idea that this data is accurate I would say is scientifically ridiculous,” he told the committee.
Dr. Kogan also lashed out at Facebook, saying the company encouraged researchers to mine the site for data and never enforced its terms and conditions on developers, which stated that information could not be used for commercial purposes. Once the Cambridge Analytica story became public, Facebook sharply criticized Dr. Kogan and banned him from the site.
He added that he disagreed that he broke any Facebook policy on sharing data.
Cambridge Analytica also went on the offensive on Tuesday, attacking Mr. Wylie and insisting it had done nothing wrong.
In a testy news conference in London, company spokesman Clarence Mitchell called allegations made against the firm “unfounded.” He said the company trusted Dr. Kogan to gather the data lawfully and ethically, and that once problems were uncovered, the company acted swiftly to delete the information. He also agreed with Dr. Kogan that the data didn’t work for political advertising, adding that it proved to be “effectively useless” after extensive testing was done in 2014 and 2015.
Mr. Mitchell also challenged Mr. Wylie and said he was “not a whistle-blower with a genuine grievance.”
He added that Mr. Wylie left the company and started a rival business that had access to the same Facebook data and described AIQ as a separate firm that did its own work on the Vote Leave campaign.
Mr. Wylie is scheduled to meet privately this week with Congressional officials in Washington. He has agreed to meet with MPs in Ottawa, but a date has not been confirmed.