MPs from across party lines today tore into a senior executive of a B.C.-based tech firm linked to the Facebook data scandal, accusing him of obfuscation and reminding him several times that he was under oath.
AggregateIQ chief operating officer Jeff Silvester appeared alone before the House of Commons privacy and ethics committee, where he faced a grilling about his firm’s ties to the ongoing international controversy over how Facebook’s massive trove of user data was turned into a political tool by the pro-Brexit and Donald Trump presidential campaigns.
The three-hour meeting got off to a rough start, with MPs voicing their displeasure with the fact that AggregateIQ CEO Zackary Massingham was a no-show — apparently due to undisclosed health reasons — even though he had been formally summoned.
“I just want to impress upon you the disappointment of this committee in the failure of Mr. Massingham to attend,” Liberal committee vice-chair Nathaniel Erskine-Smith told Silvester, encouraging him to advise his colleague to come forward with dates for a future appearance.
Erskine-Smith said the committee would meet behind closed doors after hearing from Silvester to discuss referring Massingham’s absence to the House of Commons, as it may constitute grounds for a finding of contempt of Parliament.
Silvester responded that his company had provided information to the committee’s clerk to explain Massingham’s absence, but that defence was shot down by Erskine-Smith.
“I’ve got a lot of friends who are lawyers,” he told Silvester. “You’ve clearly lawyered up and frankly the information we were provided is inadequate.”
Although the House of Commons enjoys wide discretion in determining what constitutes contempt, there is no set penalty, as the finding of contempt is considered in itself to be a sufficient sanction.
The House has recommended punishment for contempt in only a very small number of cases, according to the House of Commons procedure and practice manual.
AIQ rejects ‘wildly speculative comments’
“We’ve been entirely cooperative with this committee,” Silvester said in his opening remarks, referring to the answers that he and Massingham gave to MPs on April 24 as “completely accurate and truthful.”
The committee has since heard testimony from whistleblower Christopher Wylie and American cyber security analyst Chris Vickery. Both alleged that Massingham and Silvester lied to the committee about their company’s activities, prompting MPs to recall the pair from AggregateIQ for further questioning.
The Victoria-based company is subject to investigations by the offices of the B.C. Privacy Commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office.
“We respect the important work being done by the privacy commissioners and this committee, and wish to continue a constructive dialogue in support of that work,” Silvester told MPs on Tuesday.
Jeff Silvester, left, and Zackary Massingham of AggregateIQ first appeared as witnesses at the Commons privacy and ethics committee in April 2018, but their answers left many MPs unsatisfied.(Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
But Silvester also rejected accusations that his company lied to MPs about its work during the 2016 Brexit referendum, when it provided online campaign and advertising services to four groups that pushed for Britain to leave the European Union.
“Speculation by third parties does not constitute fact, and I ask that you not rely upon rumours, innuendo and speculation,” Silvester told MPs.
Blowing the whistle on Cambridge Analytica
The controversy began in March, when Wylie accused his former employer, the political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, of improperly harvesting private data from tens of millions of Facebook users to build psychological profiles of voters.
Wylie testified that the firm used that information to help secure victories in 2016 for Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential campaign and for the Leave camp in the Brexit referendum.
That’s where AggregateIQ comes in, according to Wylie, who alleges that the company tapped into the Facebook data held by Cambridge Analytica while working for the Leave campaign.
Silvester told MPs in April that AggregateIQ worked with four pro-Brexit organizations — Vote Leave, BeLeave, Veterans for Britain and the Democratic Unionist Party — helping to target U.K. voters through advertising on social media.
Vote leave supporters wave Union Jack flags outside Downing Street in London, Britain after the result of the EU referendum on June 24, 2016.(Neil Hall/Reuters)
In two cases, Vote Leave paid AggregateIQ for work the company did for other pro-Brexit campaigns — including a payment of more than £625,000 for BeLeave.
A former pro-Brexit volunteer has alleged that the two camps — Vote Leave and BeLeave — colluded to duck campaign spending limits, using AIQ to get away with it.
“It sounds like you were just one very tightly-run, happy family — which would be okay if it wasn’t against the law,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus.
“And that’s why we go back to the opening conversation we had about your conversation with Mr. Wylie, where he said that you knew, and you thought it was funny, that what you were doing is completely illegal.”
Chris Wylie, the Canadian formerly with Cambridge Analytica, helped lift the lid on how Facebook data was gathered without users’ knowledge to help sway voters in the U.S. election and the Brexit referendum.(Neil Hall/EPA-EFE)
“I just find it very hard to believe you. And you are under oath. Remember that,” Angus continued, suggesting that either Wylie lied to the committee or that Silvester was himself being dishonest.
“I don’t recall ever telling him that I thought it was illegal,” Silvester said of Wylie’s testimony.
“The best way to resolve this would be for him and I to talk about it,” he said, “but unfortunately, that’s not happened.”