B.C. privacy office to probe political use of personal Facebook info

"We’re the only jurisdiction in Canada that has the ability to investigate political parties," acting B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Drew McArthur says.

Victoria company a focus of province’s privacy commissioner investigation

Acting B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner Drew McArthur said his office is investigating the possible connection between a Victoria tech company and concerns about unauthorized use of personal information. (Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of B.C.)

British Columbia's privacy watchdog has joined international investigations into the alleged misuse of personal Facebook data belonging to tens of millions of individuals.

Canadian and U.K. information and privacy officials launched investigations following media reports that online information belonging to millions of Americans was obtained by a company working on U.S. President Donald Trump's election and the U.K. Brexit campaign. 

The investigation's B.C. connections include Victoria tech company AggegrateIQ and Christopher Wylie, a 28-year-old data expert originally from Victoria. Wylie has said his ideas made a key contribution to the creation of Cambridge Analytica, the company at the centre of the data-mining projects. 

Drew McArthur, the acting information and privacy commissioner for British Columbia, spoke with On the Island host Gregor Craigie about the investigations so far.

Gregor Craigie: What concerns does this raise for the privacy commission in BC?

We are concerned that people's personal information is being used for purposes that they're not aware of, without their consent.

We don't have all the facts yet, but it looks like there's two unauthorized disclosures of information: One by the researcher to Cambridge Analytica and the other by Facebook to the researcher, who disclosed information without confirming that the purposes for which it was going to be used were legitimate research.

Chrisopher Wylie, former data scientist at Cambridge Analytica, speaks about whistleblowing in London on March 20. Wylie revealed alleged misuse of Facebook users' personal data earlier this month. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

How is the B.C. information and Privacy Commission working with its U.K. counterpart and the privacy commissioner in Ottawa, who is also asking questions of Facebook?

My deputy (Michael McEvoy, who takes over as the new B.C. information and privacy commissioner April 1) has been seconded to the UK commissioner's office for the last six months.

He's working on the investigation of Cambridge Analytica and the actions around the campaigns for the Brexit vote, and we are connected with our colleagues in Ottawa.

Information knows no boundaries so we have to work with our colleagues in other jurisdictions to ensure that we're not duplicating efforts and to ensure that we're getting at facts.

How is your office responding to questions about Victoria, B.C., tech company AggregateIQ and media reports of its involvement in the U.K. Brexit campaign?

We have an investigation underway with AggregateIQ. Because it's an active investigation I can't say anything about that. 

Is your office's investigation into AggregateIQ part of the Facebook probe?

At this point in time they're separate investigations and we're not aware, although we are asking, whether AggregateIQ was involved in any of the British Columbia election activity.

The unique thing about our position in B.C. is we're the only jurisdiction in Canada that has the ability to investigate political parties.

As a result of that, information that is being used by political parties is important to us and we have a separate investigation looking at how and if political parties elected to use people's personal information.

How difficult is it to obtain information related to an investigation like this?

We have pretty broad powers to collect information. I can compel an organization to provide any information and if they don't, I actually have the courts behind me… to compel them to provide information.

But when it comes to high-tech companies and complicated algorithms and complicated processing, we need to bring in external expertise when we're doing our detailed investigations. That's our challenge and often when it's after the fact, the data may have been deleted or maybe missing altogether.

How soon do you hope to have answers?

We're still awaiting responses to our questions from AggregateIQ. It's early days in our investigation of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica yet, but from our political parties and the AggregateIQ we're looking at a timeframe of the next two to three months.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

With files from CBC Radio's On the Island with Gregor Craigie and The Canadian Press