U.K. commissioner accuses Canadian company of ducking questions about Brexit campaign

Britain's Information Commissioner is officially challenging some of the answers provided by representatives of a Canadian technology firm during their appearance before a parliamentary committee in Ottawa this week.

Elizabeth Denham's office says it is considering 'legal steps' against AggregateIQ

Jeff Silvester, left, and Zackary Massingham of AggregateIQ appear as witnesses at the Commons privacy and ethics committee in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 24, 2018. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Britain's Information Commissioner is officially challenging some of the answers provided by representatives of a Canadian technology firm during their appearance before a parliamentary committee in Ottawa this week.

On Tuesday, the House of Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee grilled Zack Massingham and Jeff Silvester, co-founders of the Victoria-based firm Aggregate IQ, for two hours about their links to Cambridge Analytica and their company's work for the Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit vote.

Both men assured the committee their work was entirely above board.

AggregateIQ Chief Executive Officer Jeff Silvester tells reporters that were not lying during testimont in front of a Parliament committee today. 1:12

Silvester insisted AIQ was cooperating with authorities in Britain who have been asking questions about the millions of dollars the company channelled into online ads for the Leave campaign.

Specifically, Silverman said the company was providing answers to the U.K.'s Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who — prior to taking up her role in Britain — spent six years as B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner.  

"On the 17th of May, 2017, the information commissioner from the U.K. sent us a letter. We responded on the 24th of May and then we didn't hear from her again until the 30th of January, this year, 2018 when she sent us a letter and we replied," Silvester said.

"We have been co-operating the whole time."

'We are considering ... legal steps'

Silvester was challenged on that midway through the hearing after Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith received a message from Damian Collins, the British MP who chairs the U.K.'s Digital and Culture Committee. Collins said he had been in contact with Denham, who told him AIQ had refused to answer her questions.

Silvester denied that assertion. But in a statement provided to CBC News, Denham's office made its position clear.

"The Canadian company Aggregate IQ has so far not answered the substance of our questions in the ICO's investigation," the statement reads.

"Contrary to the statements made to the Canadian parliamentary committee about cooperation, Aggregate IQ recently advised that they would not answer any more questions from my office, they are not subject to my jurisdiction and they considered the matter closed.

"We are considering the legal steps available to obtain the information."

Bob Zimmer, the Conservative MP who led Tuesday's hearing in Ottawa, said he is looking at the options open to the committee if it decides the testimony it heard from AIQ was not accurate.

"If there are things that we see that are discrepancies, we're going to deal with them," Zimmer said.

AIQ's Jeff Silvester told the committee AIQ has received a request to testify before MPs in the U.K. and will work to schedule a time.

Erskine-Smith said he will wait and see whether that happens.

"If the U.K. committee is successful in securing AIQ's attendance before them, then I think the U.K. will be able to pursue this in more detail," he said.

"But if AIQ refuses to attend before the U.K. committee, I think we'll consider having them back."

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower at the centre of the Cambridge Analytica affair, made explosive allegations against AIQ when he appeared before the U.K.'s Digital and Culture Committee last month.

"You have to remember that this is a company that has gone around the world and undermined democratic institutions in all kinds of countries," he told MPs.

AIQ denying whistleblower's claims

Cambridge Analytica is under fire for having used data harvested from users of an application on Facebook to build detailed profiles of the personalities of American and British voters, for use by Republican political candidates during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Brexit's Vote Leave Campaign.

Massingham told the Commons committee AggregateIQ did not have access to that data set.

Wylie is scheduled to speak to the House of Commons Access to Information Committee in late May.

Speaking to reporters after his appearance before the committee on Tuesday, AIQ's Jeff Silvester said he couldn't understand why Wylie was making his claims.

And in an e-mail to CBC News on Wednesday, Silvester responded to the latest comments from the U.K. information commissioner.

"I don't know why these comments have been made by the U.K. information commissioner," Silvester wrote.

"We would prefer that the U.K. information commissioner simply contact us if she has new questions to ask. In fact, we are waiting on the commissioner to respond to a letter we sent her office recently."

About the Author

Tom Parry

Senior Reporter

Tom Parry is a reporter on Parliament Hill for CBC News. He has covered stories for CBC from across Canada and around the world.

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