Carole Cadwalladr Sat 7 Apr 2018
Facebook has suspended the Canadian data firm that the official Vote Leave campaign spent 40% of its budget with, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal continues to unfold.
On Friday, Facebook announced that it had suspended AggregateIQ (AIQ) from its platform following reports that the company may be connected to CambridgeAnalytica’s parent company, SCL.
In its statement, Facebook said: “In light of recent reports that AggregateIQ may be affiliated with SCL and may, as a result, have improperly received FB user data, we have added them to the list of entities we have suspended from our platform while we investigate.
“Our internal review continues, and we will co-operate fully with any investigations by regulatory authorities.”
The company played a critical role in the European referendum with four different campaigns employing its services and spending a total of £3.5m: Vote Leave, BeLeave, Veterans for Britain and the DUP. Additionally, it did work for John Bolton, the newly appointed national security adviser to Donald Trump, and the US senators Thom Tillis and Ted Cruz.
The Observer first revealed links between Cambridge Analytica and AIQ last May. Two weeks ago, Christopher Wylie, the ex-Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, told how he had help set up the company when he asked his friends in his home town of Victoria, British Columbia, to come and work with Cambridge Analytica. AIQ have denied that Wylie had any involvement in setting up the company.
At that time, AIQ removed a quote from Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s chief strategist, from the home page of its website. Previously, it had said: “Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Ten days ago, Wylie gave evidence about AIQ to MPs on the department of culture, media and sport select committee and also handed over legal documents that showed the connections between it and SCL Elections, including two contracts and an IP licence as well as an email between Jeff Silvester, the co-founder of AIQ, and Alexander Nix, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica.
The email, about the campaign for Bolton, referenced Aleksandr Kogan and the Facebook data that he had harvested on Cambridge Analytica’s behalf.
Last week, AIQ told the Observer that it was not a direct part and/or the Canadian branch of Cambridge Analytica and that it had not been involved the exploitation of Facebook data.
The company is already intertwined in an investigation by the Electoral Commission, which in November re-opened an investigation into a donation of £625,000 that Vote Leave had given its youth campaign, BeLeave, saying there was “reasonable grounds to suspect an offence may have been committed”.
It is perfectly legal for one campaign to donate to another if they are separate, but the donation went straight from Vote Leave to AIQ and a second whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, a 22-year-old volunteer with BeLeave, told the Observer that they had no control over how the money was spent. Vote Leave have repeatedly denied the coordination between the campaigns and said the donation was legitimate pursuant to electoral law. When the Electoral Commission first looked at this in March 2017 it agreed with Vote Leave.
The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, who is leading another investigation into the use of data in the referendum, said: “AggregateIQ has not been especially cooperative with our investigation. We are taking further steps in that matter.” AIQ say they have answered all the questions put to them by the Electoral Commission.
Both Dom Cummings, the chief strategist for Vote Leave, and Darren Grimes of BeLeave, told the paper that he found the firm – which has just 20 staff that operated out of a cramped office above an opticians in the Canadian city of Victoria, 4,760 miles away – “on the internet”.
But cached searches show that AggregateIQ did not show up in Google searches at that time and a new source within Vote Leave has come forward to say that Cummings had full knowledge of the connections between the two firms. AIQ says it has had a website since it was founded in 2013.
Wylie claims that the two entities, certainly during the time of the referendum campaign, were operating closely, though this has been strongly denied by AIQ. “Among internal CA [Cambridge Analytica] staff AIQ was referred to as ‘our Canadian office’. They were treated as a department within the company,” he said. They were both working on Cruz’s presidential campaign at the time, he said, and were in daily contact.
Silvester said that Cambridge Analytica was not in contact with AIQ during the referendum campaign. “AIQ never worked or even communicated in any way with Cambridge Analytica or any other parties related to Cambridge Analytica with respect to the Brexit campaign. Any claim that we shared Vote Leave data with Cambridge Analytica or anyone else in any way is entirely false.”
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