British Columbia

Victoria company linked to Brexit allegations largely unknown in home city

AggregateIQ, a Victoria-based firm that has been linked to an alleged scheme to sidestep Brexit spending limits, remains largely unknown to tech industry in the city where it's based.

'They're pretty tight lipped and keep things out of the public eye,' says tech association head

Dan Gunn, CEO of Victoria tech industry association VIATEC, says AggregateIQ is not unique in developing targeted promotional campaigns that use personal social media data. But it's the only that he knows of that used it for 'political persuasion.' (Deborah Wilson/CBC)

AggregateIQ (AIQ), a Victoria-based firm that has been linked to an alleged scheme to sidestep Brexit spending limits, remains largely unknown to the tech industry in the city where it's based.

At a British parliamentary committee hearing this week, the digital advertising, web and software development company was accused of voter manipulation in the Brexit campaign by whistleblower and former Victoria resident Chris Wylie.

Wylie appeared before the parliamentary committee in the wake of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal.

 A data scientist who helped found Cambridge Analytica, Wylie alleged that firm improperly harvested details of 50 million Facebook users and used the material in U.S. President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign.

'I don't know their team'

He also told the committee he believed AIQ had drawn on Cambridge Analytica's databases for its work on the Brexit referendum. The data would be used to influence what certain voters saw on social media, Wylie said.

The outsized role alleged for a small local company came as a shock to Dan Gunn, CEO of VIATEC, (the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council), which has more than 500 members. 

"AggregateIQ had never joined our community and so I didn't know them personally and I don't know their team," Gunn told CBC The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

VIATEC members are as curious as anyone about the company and the role they might have been playing internationally, he said.

AggregateIQ is still listed in the directory at its former offices on Johnson Street in Victoria despite having vacated the building two months ago. (Sterling Eyford/CBC)

"But we haven't been able to find out all that much. They're pretty tight lipped and keep things out of the public eye."

AggregateIQ features a number of election-related applications on its website, as well as a recently added statement saying it has never knowingly been involved in any illegal activity.

It also denies having been a part of, or under contract to, SCL and Cambridge Analytic, the companies linked to misuse of personal Facebook data to sway voters in the Brexit and Trump campaigns.

Gunn said other tech companies in Victoria do the same general type of work as AIQ — "what we would call performance marketing companies"— developing targeted promotional campaigns with widely available information from Facebook and other social media platforms.

However, he said, he didn't know of any other companies involved in using performance marketing for political persuasion.

"I suspect that if they existed in any city, they'd probably keep that pretty undercover as well."

Not like selling shampoo and trucks

Gunn said most people accept that targeted commercial advertising for products such as shampoo and trucks is part of the bargain for users of the free Facebook platform. But he said it becomes a serious problem when false stories and hoaxes are used to divide families and reinforce fear of people from other countries.

Gunn said he was unsure of whether the publicity over Aggregate IQ will leave a positive or negative impression about Victoria's tech sector.

"What it has done is it's at least got people talking about the tech sector in Victoria, which has been hard to do," he said.

With files from CBC Radio's On the Island and The Early Edition.