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Politics Parliamentary committee to question AggregateIQ founders about data-misuse allegations

The two founders of a B.C.-based company accused of misusing private data for foreign political campaigns and breaking election laws will speak for the first time to the allegations they face.

Jeff Silvester and Zack Massingham, who started AggregateIQ (AIQ) five years ago, will appear on Tuesday before the parliamentary standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics in Ottawa. They are also slated to answer reporters’ questions immediately afterward.

The Victoria-based company has been accused of being a Canadian tangent of a global network of political consultants who surreptitiously mined social-media profiles in large volumes and turned that information over to political clients looking to gain an election edge.

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Canadian whistle-blower Chris Wylie made the data-misuse allegations last month, saying he helped set up both AIQ and the U.K.-based firm, Cambridge Analytica. Mr. Wylie said Mr. Silvester was his former mentor. A decade ago, the pair volunteered for Keith Martin, the Victoria-area Liberal MP.

In 2014, Cambridge Analytica used a third-party contractor to acquire a Facebook dataset of 87 million people’s personal information, including that of more than 600,000 Canadians. Cambridge Analytica and AIQ went on to do work targeting Republican voters, Mr. Wylie has alleged. AIQ has also been accused of being a conduit for questionable campaign spending by pro-Brexit political groups.

AIQ’s founders have said little about the data-misuse allegations beyond releasing a short statement downplaying their ties to Cambridge Analytica and maintaining that their company has “never knowingly been involved in any illegal activity.”

The ethics committee is now probing the allegations. Last week, it heard from Facebook Canada officials and the federal Privacy Commissioner.

Here are five things to watch for in Tuesday’s testimony from AIQ.

Was AggregateIQ “a proxy money-laundering vehicle” for pro-Brexit campaigns, as Mr. Wylie has said?

In Britain, questions keep arising about how and why an obscure Canadian consultancy became a preferred partner for several seemingly related pro-Brexit campaign entities. AIQ received the equivalent of millions of advertising dollars to shape social-media messaging for these factions. Questions now centre on whether the pro-Brexit groups were in cahoots to unlawfully skirt campaign-spending limits.

“AggregateIQ was just used as a proxy money-laundering vehicle,” the whistle-blower Mr. Wylie told Britain’s Parliament last month. Protected by a Parliamentary libel shield, he then added: “I remember Jeff Silvester telling me this – it was ‘totally illegal.’” AIQ has denied any wrongdoing.

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Why did Facebook ban AIQ from its platform?

Facebook has exiled from its platform several political consultants with ties to Cambridge Analytica, including AIQ. This is the continuing fallout from 2014, when a U.K. professor − Aleksandr Kogan, himself scheduled to testify in Britain on Tuesday − used his research credentials to acquire the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users. He then sold that information to political consultants.

Dr. Kogan “lied to” the company about his aims, Facebook has said. “In light of recent reports that AggregateIQ may … have improperly received Facebook user data, we have added them to the list of entities we have suspended,” a spokeswoman for the social-media giant said this month.

Was AIQ ever a Cambridge Analytica company?

Several people have alleged that in 2014 and 2015, AIQ and Cambridge Analytica were effectively joined at the hip. Consider what one former Cambridge Analytica employee told a British legislative committee last week. “It was my understanding when I joined the company that AggregateIQ was our exclusive digital and data-engineering partner, so they would build our software,” Brittany Kaiser said.

She later testified that Mr. Wylie once worked for or with AIQ, and that together he, Mr. Silvester and Mr. Massingham were all known as “SCL Canada” − a reference to Cambridge Analytica’s U.K. parent company, the SCL Group.

The Canadian company denies this. “AggregateIQ has never been and is not a part of Cambridge Analytica,” it has said in a statement.

What work has AIQ been doing in Third World countries?

The Globe and Mail recently reported on a joint AIQ-SCL Group venture in Trinidad in 2014, where in the course of campaign consulting, these companies asked a local telecommunications company to hand over the internet-browsing histories of its customers.

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Separately, AIQ has also been accused of distributing an Islamophobic video in Nigeria, as part of some paid work for a politician who was trying to whip up fears about the Boko Haram terrorist group taking over.

Is AIQ co-operating with privacy probes, as it said it would?

Privacy watchdog officials in Britain and Canada are probing AIQ’s role in the Cambridge Analytica controversy. So is the B.C. Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

“We’re investigating Aggregate IQ here in Victoria,” the now-retired privacy commissioner Drew McArthur told The Globe last month. But he then added that his office had yet to interview anyone under oath, and that AIQ’s specific ties to Cambridge Analytica remained murky to him.

When The Globe first spoke to AIQ last year about this probe, the company said, “We’ve nothing to hide and will cooperate as best we can to assist in the investigation.”

With a report from Mike Hager

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