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Media

De Jong Campaign Rejected Controversial Online Company Over ‘Moral Lens’

‘I just didn’t feel comfortable,’ campaign’s strategist says.

By Andrew MacLeod 10 Jan 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

Before being hired by Todd Stone’s BC Liberal leadership campaign, the controversial social media advertising firm AggregateIQ had approached at least one of his competitors and been turned down.

“They’d put a proposal in front of us, but I didn’t want to use them, so we didn’t use AggregateIQ,” said Stephen Carter, the campaign strategist for Mike de Jong’s leadership bid.

“There’d been a bunch of mess around them with the various campaigns they’d been associated with,” Carter said in a phone interview. “I just didn’t feel comfortable they weren’t going to get us in trouble.”

Following its role in the 2016 Brexit Vote Leave campaign, the Victoria company’s work has come under investigation by the United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner in B.C.

AggregateIQ co-founder Jeff Silvester said in an email that he doesn’t discuss the company’s clients, but that the company has promptly answered questions that officials in the U.K. and B.C. have put to them to clarify the nature of their work.

“We take information and privacy laws very seriously and of course would co-operate with any investigation,” Silvester said. “I suspect that their interest in us stems from inaccurate media reports in the U.K. about us and our work.”

AggregateIQ is a locally owned and operated digital marketing website and software development company “which has found some success internationally within the political field,” Silvester said.

“We did not collect personal information during the U.K. referendum and we have confirmed this with both the U.K. Information Commissioner and the B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner. I trust that having had their questions answered, they will reach out if they require any clarification or additional information and, if so, we will do our best to assist them.”

In a December blog posting, the U.K.’s Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, who previously held the equivalent position in B.C., wrote, “We are concerned about invisible processing — the ‘behind the scenes’ algorithms, analysis, data matching, profiling that involves people’s personal information.

“When the purpose for using these techniques is related to the democratic process, the case for a high standard of transparency is very strong.”

In B.C., the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner is co-ordinating with Denham’s office and reviewing whether AggregateIQ is complying with the Personal Information Protection Act, which is privacy legislation that applies to the private sector.

The Tyee reported yesterday that Stone’s campaign communications director Stephen Smart had confirmed that AggregateIQ “is supporting our campaign with the maintenance and marketing of our digital campaign assets.”

The strong digital presence was important for reaching voters, particularly younger ones, Smart wrote in an email. “Our campaign maintains complete control of all voter and supporter information that is gathered through the use of these digital tools.”

De Jong strategist Carter said that while he didn’t know how Stone’s campaign made its decision to use AggregateIQ, the company’s work is cutting edge and was no doubt attractive to Stone, who headed a software company before entering politics. “I’m sure it held excitement and promise for that campaign.”

Carter said he’s confident AggregateIQ has complied with Canadian laws, but the work it does has to be viewed through a moral lens as well. “I just felt like we didn’t want to be treading in those waters,” he said. “The moral side is where we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about where we want to be.”

The decision was easy, he said. “It was a proposal that had been submitted, we evaluated it and said ‘no’. It wasn’t a long process.”

A spokesperson for Andrew Wilkinson’s leadership team declined to comment, but said the campaign has not used AggregateIQ. Representatives of other campaigns didn’t respond to messages by publication time.

Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the advocacy group Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said that with the media coverage in the U.K. and Canada, Stone’s campaign must have known about the controversy around AggregateIQ and should have asked questions.

“They must be pretty confident those guys or gals are doing things properly,” Gogolek said. “The authorities responsible for protecting our privacy are concerned enough they’re conducting an investigation into what happened with the Brexit vote. You’ve got to satisfy yourself that they’re going to be doing things in compliance.”

AggregateIQ develops advertising to be used on sites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and targets those messages to audiences who are likely to be receptive.

“This is the bigger question, to what extent are we really agreeing to any of this,” Gogolek said, noting that social media sites often bury the consent details deep in the terms and conditions that users need to agree to if they are going to use a service. “It really comes down to the nature of the consent. How informed is it? How free is it?”

In March, The Tyee reported on the links between AggregateIQ and SCL Group, whose website says it has worked to influence election outcomes in 19 countries. Cambridge Analytica, its associated company in the U.S., has worked on many campaigns, including Donald Trump’s winning bid to be U.S. president.  [Tyee]

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