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A look at the ad-targeting tools AggregateIQ left exposed online

A look at the ad-targeting tools AggregateIQ left exposed online
From Engadget - April 13, 2018

Before jumping into UpGuard's findings, let's review AggregateIQ. Whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee who has been central to information about the company coming to light, told The Observer last month that he helped get AggregateIQ up and running in order to help SCL expand its operations. "Essentially it was set up as a Canadian entity for people who wanted to work on SCL projects who did not want to move to London," he said. "That's how [AggregateIQ] got started: originally to service SCL and Cambridge Analytica projects." Earlier this month, Facebook suspended AggregateIQ for its connections with Cambridge Analytica and the possibility that it might, therefore, have some of the data Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained.

Though AggregateIQ and SCL have tried to distance themselves from each other lately, they worked quite closely together for some time. "AggregateIQ were the ones that took a lot of data that Cambridge Analytica would acquire and the algorithms they build, and translated that into the actual physical targeting online, they [AggregateIQ] were the bit that actually disseminated stuff," Wylie told The Observer. And AggregateIQ co-founder Jeff Silvester told Gizmodo recently, "We did some work with SCL and had a contract with them in 2014 for some custom software development. We last worked with SCL in 2016 and have not worked with them since." AggregateIQ's website now says it "has never been and is not a part of Cambridge Analytica or SCL" and that it "has never entered into a contract with Cambridge Analytica."

Of course, now we know that Cambridge Analytica did improperly obtain information on 87 million Facebook users through researcher Aleksandr Kogan and that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz both used its services during their campaigns. We also now know that AggregateIQ developed some of the tools marketed by Cambridge Analytica and that it worked with a number of British political groups who campaigned in support of the UK leaving the European Union during the Brexit referendum.

But now we also have a look into the powerful tools AggregateIQ developed and how they work and we have that information because the company left them exposed online. Last month cybersecurity firm UpGuard released a report detailing how its researchers were able to access an AggregateIQ code repository with just an email address. The registration process did not even require a verification of that email address.

After registering, UpGuard researchers were able to access AggregateIQ's Gitlab subdomain. "Within these repositories appear to be nothing less than mechanisms capable of organizing vast quantities of data about individuals, measuring how they are being influenced or reached by advertising and even tracking their internet browsing behavior," said UpGuard. The repository included data management programs, advertising trackers and information databases as well as credentials, keys, hashes, usernames and passwords, which could be used to access other AIQ assets, such as databases, social media accounts and Amazon Web Services repositories.

UpGuard's findings also indicated that AggregateIQ and SCL worked together on the Ripon platform developed for the Cruz campaign and that AggregateIQ worked with at least seven British political groups. Some of those, like Vote Leave, the Democratic Unionist Party and Veterans for Britain were already known to have worked with AggregateIQ, but others were not publicly linked to the data firm prior to UpGuard's findings. Of note, a majority of the groups with repositories in AggregateIQ's Gitlab subdomain actively campaigned for UK to leave the European Union ahead of the Brexit referendum.

Today, UpGuard publishes the third piece of its AggregateIQ series and it's focused on the tools the firm developed and left exposed online. As UpGuard reports, two project families dubbed Saga and Monarch "are designed to gather and use data across a number of platforms through a variety of means." And for the first time, we are getting a hard look at how they work and their potential applications.

The first, Saga, appears to be able to automate the creation, analysis and targeting of advertisements in a way that would make it quite easy for a small number of people to manage a large number of Facebook ad accounts. "Saga was used specifically to interface with the Facebook ad system through APIs and scraping methods and gauge response to images and messages and posts," says Chris Vickery, UpGuard's director of cyber risk research.

And the information Saga scripts were designed to collect was quite specific. One script suggests AggregateIQ could targe political ads to individuals based on who they were friends with. Another suggests the firm's tools could target geo-specifically down to the neighborhood or even the household. And of course, engagements with messages and posts could be monitored -- actions such as who liked it, how quickly they liked it, how many people liked it, what regions people were liking it in and so on.

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