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Federal and BC Privacy Watchdogs Combine Investigation into Facebook and AggregateIQ

Victoria-based company at the heart of allegations of improper sharing of data from millions of Facebook accounts.

Andrew MacLeod 6 Apr

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

Privacy officials for Canada and British Columbia announced Thursday that they will work together to investigate social media giant Facebook and Victoria-based company AggregateIQ.

“These investigations will examine whether the organizations are in compliance with Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act...and B.C.’s Personal Information Protection Act,” a statement from B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner said.

The statement said the privacy offices would be providing no additional details at this time as the investigations are active.

The news comes a day after Facebook said the personal information of 87 million people, most of them in the United States, had been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica, a digital advertising company alleged to have close connections with AggregateIQ.

The people affected included 600,000 Canadians, Facebook has said.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada began its investigation in March after former SCL research director Christopher Wylie made allegations about the unauthorized access and use of Facebook user profiles.

Wylie, who grew up and first got involved in politics in Victoria, told a British parliament committee that he “absolutely” believed AggregateIQ used Cambridge Analytica’s databases in its work during the Brexit referendum. He described AggregateIQ as a “franchise” of SCL.

The Tyee reported a year ago on the links between AggregateIQ and SCL Group, whose website says it has worked to influence election outcomes in 19 countries. Cambridge Analytica, SCL’s associated company in the U.S., has worked on a wide range of campaigns, including Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

AggregateIQ officials have not responded to multiple interview requests in recent weeks, but a statement on the company’s website said, “AggregateIQ has never been and is not a part of Cambridge Analytica or SCL ... AggregateIQ has never entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytica.”

AggregateIQ has been the subject of a B.C. OIPC investigation since late in 2017 and the office has been working on the file since nearly a year ago when the company’s work for the leave side in the Brexit referendum drew the attention of the U.K.’s information commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

Brexit campaign disclosures showed that Vote Leave campaigners had spent £3.5 million — about $5.75 million Canadian — with AggregateIQ. That was more than the Leave side paid any other company or individual during the campaign and about 40 per cent of its spending ahead of the June referendum that saw Britons narrowly vote to exit the European Union.

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

Denham said last year she was investigating “the use of data analytics for political purposes.” The investigation was to look at whether political parties or advocacy groups are gathering personal information from Facebook and other social media and using it to target individuals with messages, she said.

Until July 2016, before taking the job in the U.K., Denham was B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner. Michael McEvoy, who started as the province’s commissioner on April 1, had been seconded to Denham’s office in recent months to work on the investigation.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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