It seems extraordinary that an obscure Canadian data and marketing company based in a small office above an optician in British Columbia should have played such a key role in the Brexit referendum. But it is now clear that AggregateIQ (AIQ) was at the heart of Vote Leave’s operation to target British voters.
In the run-up to the vote, the company was paid £3.5 million by Vote Leave, some of this illegally funnelled through two other supposedly separate Brexit campaign groups, BeLeave and Veterans for Britain. This was more than 40% of Vote Leave’s overall budget. The DUP also channelled much of the ‘dark money’ it put towards Brexit to AIQ.
So delighted with the company’s work was Vote Leave’s campaigns director Dominic Cummings that AIQ’s website for a time featured an effusive quote from him: ‘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.’
Much of what is known about AIQ comes from the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie, who helped to set up AIQ in 2013. Speaking to the Guardian, Wylie explains that the company was intimately linked to Cambridge Analytica, operating CA’s technology platform and managing its databases:
‘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. […] 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.’
AIQ was linked to Cambridge Analytica in another way: its intellectual property (IP) was owned by Cambridge Analytica’s main financial backer, the far-right US hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, a close associate of both of Nigel Farage and of Cambridge Analytica’s former vice-president, Steve Bannon.
So how did Vote Leave come across AIQ, the company on which it was to lavish millions of pounds? Dominic Cummings claims he ‘found it on the internet’ – which is odd since AIQ had no website until well after it was contracted to work for Vote Leave. A Vote Leave insider, speaking anonymously to the Guardian, tells a very different story:
‘The idea that Dom had no idea of AIQ’s connection to Cambridge Analytica is complete bullshit. 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.’
So what exactly was AIQ doing for Vote Leave and other Brexit campaigners? According to a July 2018 report from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO):
‘AIQ created and, in some cases, placed advertisements on behalf of the DUP Vote to Leave campaign, Vote Leave, BeLeave, and Veterans for Britain. AIQ ran 218 ads solely on behalf of Vote Leave and directed at email addresses on Facebook. Vote Leave and BeLeave used the same data set to identify audiences and select targeting criteria for ads […] Our regulatory concern is therefore whether, and on what basis, the two groups have shared data between themselves and others.’
The ‘others’ who may have used illegally harvested Facebook data from Cambridge Analytica and/or AIQ to target people in the UK and the US include actors in Russia, who the ICO has revealed were able to access this data.
The ICO’s investigation of the links between AIQ, Cambridge Anaytica and the Leave campaigns is ongoing. For its part, AIQ appear to be using their legal presence outside the UK to resist investigation by British authorities, claiming ‘AggregateIQ works in full compliance within all legal and regulatory requirements in all jurisdictions where we operate’.
We still don’t know exactly what advertising was targeted at British voters by AIQ, although Facebook may be able to agree a protocol to release this to Damian Collins’s parliamentary inquiry. What we can be sure about is that those who received such ads in email or on their social media feeds had little idea of how they had been targeted or of the true identity and motives of the people and companies behind these ads.
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