Title Revealed: the ties that bind Vote Leave's data firm to controversial Cambridge Analytica | UK news | The Guardian
Publication Date 2018-03-24
Text Cambridge Analytica has undisclosed links to the Canadian digital firm AggregateIQ that played a pivotal role in the official Vote Leave campaign in 2016, which was headed by the environment secretary Michael Gove and the foreign secretary Boris Johnson, the Observer has learned.
Christopher Wylie, the former Cambridge Analytica employee turned whistleblower, has revealed that as well as playing a part in setting up the firm – which is now facing increasing scrutiny from investigators on both sides of the Atlantic over its role in harvesting Facebook data – he was also a central figure in setting up AIQ, which accounted for 40% of Vote Leave’s campaign budget.
The Observer first disclosed connections between the firms a year ago when it published details of an intellectual property licence that linked AIQ and SCL Elections, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica.
In public, the official Leave campaign and Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign were quite separate and appeared hostile to each other. But the connections between the two data firms raise fresh questions about possible overlaps between the two campaigns.
Wylie said that, in 2016, the relationship went far beyond that. Although AIQ and Cambridge Analytica appeared separate, the two were bound by a skein of threads so intimate that some Cambridge Analytica staff referred to the Canadian data firm as a “department” within the company. Wylie said that the two businesses shared the same underlying technology.
“AIQ wouldn’t exist without me,” he said. “When I became research director for SCL [the parent company of Cambridge Analytica] we needed to rapidly expand our technical capacity and I reached out to a lot of people I had worked with in the past.”
That included Jeff Silvester, his former boss, who lived in Wylie’s home town – Victoria, capital of the province of British Columbia. Wylie suggested Silvester should work for the firm in London. “But he had just had a family and wasn’t keen to go to London,” he said.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest AggregateIQ’s Zack Massingham, left, with Vote Leave’s Stephen Parkinson pictured in the campaign’s London office.
The Observer has seen an email from 11 August 2013 that Wylie sent to Silvester about SCL. “We mostly do psychological warfare work for Nato,” he said. “But a lot of projects involve a socio-political element.”
Silvester replied: “You need a Canadian office.”
He then set up AIQ with his business partner, Zack Massingham, to work on SCL and later Cambridge Analytica projects. “Essentially it was set up as a Canadian entity for people who wanted to work on SCL projects who didn’t want to move to London. That’s how AIQ got started: originally to service SCL and Cambridge Analytica projects,” said Wylie.
Last March, when the Observer started asking questions about the connection between Cambridge Analytica and AIQ, the former removed “SCL Canada” and Massingham’s phone number from its website and said that AIQ was a “former IT contractor”.
Cambridge Analytica is already under scrutiny for its work for Farage’s Leave.EU campaign, and AIQ is also involved in an investigation by the Electoral Commission into Vote Leave.
On Saturday the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham said that “AggregateIQ has not been especially co-operative with our investigation. We are taking further steps in that matter.”
The mystery of how Vote Leave even found AIQ, a firm with just 20 staff that operated 4,760 miles away out of a cramped office above an opticians in the Canadian city of Victoria, was raised by the Observer last May.
Dom Cummings, the chief strategist for Vote Leave, told this newspaper that he found the firm “on the internet”. But cached searches show that AIQ had no internet presence 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.
“The idea that Dom had no idea of AIQ’s connection to Cambridge Analytica is complete bullshit,” said the source. “It was a former Cambridge Analytica employee who made the introduction. He knew exactly how the two companies operated together. He knew they’d worked together on the [former candidate for the Republican nomination for president] Ted Cruz campaign and that they shared the same underlying technology,” said the source.
But Cummings told this newspaper: “Vote Leave data never went anywhere near Cambridge Analytica and your repeated attempts to show that Vote Leave and Cambridge Analytica were somehow secretly coordinating is not just without foundation but the opposite of the truth.”
Until 2016, AIQ had no clients other than Cambridge Analytica. The lack of a website, Wylie claims, was because at the time of the referendum it was operating almost as “an internal department of Cambridge Analytica. It didn’t have a website and no contact number. The only public contact number was SCL’s website.” However, AIQ says it has had a website since it was founded in 2013.
Wylie said that AIQ managed Cambridge Analytica’s technology platform – Ripon – and its databases. “Because AIQ was operating internally, almost as a department of Cambridge Analytica, it didn’t have a website and no contact number. The only public contact number was SCL’s website,” said Wylie.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Screengrab taken at 2pm on Tuesday from AIQ’s homepage. By Thursday, after the company was contacted by the Observer, it had been taken down. Photograph: AggregateIQ
He said AIQ also had its intellectual property owned by Cambridge Analytica. “AIQ often traded as SCL Canada for ages and although a technically separate company, the IP [intellectual property] was retained by Cambridge Analytica and SCL.
“They were the ones that took a lot of data that Cambridge Analytica would acquire and the algorithms they build and translated that into the actual physical targeting online, they [AIQ] were the bit that actually disseminated stuff. AIQ managed the Ripon platform, which is Cambridge Analytica’s platform, and built a lot of the tech that would connect the algorithms to social and online advertising networks.”
Wylie claims that the two entities, certainly during the time of the referendum campaign, were operating closely. “Among internal CA staff AIQ was referred to as ‘our Canadian office’. They were treated as a department within the company,” he said.
Cummings would later say: “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.” His quote, emblazoned on the AIQ website for more than a year, disappeared on Thursday.
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.”
He added: “AggregateIQ has always been 100% Canadian owned and operated.”
• This article was updated on 27 March 2018 to clarify which SCL Group company AIQ’s intellectual property was licensed to; and on 29 March to clarify that Victoria, on Vancouver Island, is the capital of the province of British Columbia and is 4,760 miles, not 2,300 miles, from London.
• Addendum, 29 March 2018: we are happy to clarify that we did not intend to suggest that AggregateIQ is a direct part and/or the Canadian branch of Cambridge Analytica or that it has been involved in the exploitation of Facebook data or otherwise in any of the alleged wrongdoing made against Cambridge Analytica. Further we did not intend to suggest that AIQ secretly and unethically coordinated with Cambridge Analytica on the EU Referendum.