UK officials seek warrant to access Cambridge Analytica’s systems

Vidya Ram London | Updated on March 20, 2018

In trouble Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, arrives at his office in central London on Tuesday   -  HENRY NICHOLLS

Britain probing alleged misuse of Facebook data to influence US Presidential polls in 2016

Offering a rival a “deal that is too good to be true,” such as campaign finance in return for land and posting video of it on the Internet. Using “beautiful” Ukrainian women as a honey trap. These were just two of the tactics outlined by Alexander Nix, the head of Cambridge Analytica, filmed as part of an undercover investigative story by Britain’s Channel 4 news, which has piled pressure on the political predictive analytics firm, which has boasted of its role in getting US President Donald Trump elected.

Following weekend revelations by the Observer newspaper that the company had allegedly improperly mined 50 million Facebook users data to predict and influence voters actions, pressure on the company ratcheted up as Britain’s Information Commissioner said it was seeking a warrant to obtain information and access the company’s system, after failing to respond to a deadline of March 7. Facebook has also agreed to stand down from its search of Cambridge Analytica’s premises at the regulator’s request. The regulator is investigating the circumstances in which “Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used” as part of an ongoing investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes.

Modus operandi

Posing as an agent and associate for a wealthy Sri Lankan family wishing to get into politics there, two undercover reporters held a series of meetings with top Cambridge Analytica figures, including Nix, between November 2017 and January 2018. The recordings capture a troubling picture of the company’s global operations and effectiveness, as it boasted of its work as far apart as Brazil, China and Australia. It’s no good “fighting an election campaign on the facts because it’s actually about emotions,” a senior executive told the journalists at one meeting.

“There are things that don’t necessarily need to be true as long as they are believed,” Nix told the journalists of some of the messages the firm could help put out about potential rivals.

Cambridge Analytica said it rejected the allegations made in the most recent documentary, which it insisted “grossly misrepresented” the conversations and the way it conducted its business. Facebook on Monday said it had stood down from a comprehensive audit of Cambridge Analytica at the request of the Information Commissioner, and that it was conducting a “comprehensive internal and external review.”

Stronger enforcement

The developments have led to further questions about the powers of regulators to tackle such alleged inappropriate use of data. Speaking in the House of Commons Britain’s Minister for Digital, Culture and Media, Matt Hancock, said the government was considering proposals from the Information Commissioner for stronger enforcement powers, and the power to compel testimony where needed. “The appropriate use of data is important for good campaigning…But it is important that the public are comfortable with how information is gathered, used and shared in modern political campaigns, and it is important that the Information Commissioner has the enforcement powers she needs,” he said during a debate in the House of Commons on Monday evening.

Over the weekend, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie alleged the company used Facebook data , without the authorisation of users, in 2014, in the build-up to the US Presidential election. Facebook has said it had suspended Cambridge Analytica for violating terms of service and investigating if data collected from an app hosted on Facebook had in fact been deleted.

Set up in 2013, London-based Cambridge Analytica, funded by US billionaire and Republican donor, Robert Mercer, has built up into a global data mining and communications firm with a reach across the world, with offices stretching from Washington DC to Malaysia.

Published on March 20, 2018

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