Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm involved in a scandal with Facebook over misuse of private data, is learning what it's like to have their privacy invaded. Britain's information commissioner announced today that she is seeking a warrant to search the company's office and servers for any evidence of illegal activity.
CEO of Cambridge Analytica Alexander Nix speaks at the 2016 Concordia Summit. Photo: Getty
It's been an eventful few days for the data firm. The drama all began over the weekend with an internal whistleblower coming forward to say that Cambridge Analytica had acquired the personal data on 50 million Facebook users through a method that violated Facebook's terms of service. Then, on Monday, the UK's Channel 4 ran the second part of an ongoing investigation into Cambridge Analytica's shady political practices.
The segment from Channel 4 featured undercover video of a man identified as Cambridge Analytica's chief executive, Alexander Nix, speaking with reporters he believed to be potential clients. From Channel 4:
In one exchange, when asked about digging up material on political opponents, Mr Nix said they could "send some girls around to the candidate's house", adding that Ukrainian girls "are very beautiful, I find that works very well".
In another he said: "We'll offer a large amount of money to the candidate, to finance his campaign in exchange for land for instance, we'll have the whole thing recorded, we'll blank out the face of our guy and we post it on the Internet."
Offering bribes to public officials is an offence under both the UK Bribery Act and the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Cambridge Analytica operates in the UK and is registered in the United States.
After the segment aired, Britain's Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, appeared for an interview with Channel 4's Jon Snow. Denham said that her office "has been carrying out an investigation into data analytics and political profiling and micro-targeting for several months now. And we have heard similar allegations during our investigation."
The commissioner emphasised that Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are only one part of their investigation, which involves 30 organisations and was started with the intent of explaining to the public what happens to their personal data during political campaigning. Denham said that she issued a demand for access to Cambridge Analytica on March 7 and that she was not satisfied with its response. She said that her office will formally request the warrant tomorrow, and she is seeking access to the computers and property of the firm.
Facebook's own forensic investigators were going to conduct an independent review of Cambridge Analytica's systems, according to an announcement today.
However, Facebook has confirmed that auditors from Stroz Friedberg, the digital forensics firm it hired to conduct the probe of Cambridge Analytica's servers, were asked to leave by UK authorities. "At the request of the UK Information Commissioner's Office, which has announced it is pursuing a warrant to conduct its own on-site investigation, the Stroz Friedberg auditors stood down," Facebook said in a statement.
Denham said that "Facebook has been cooperative with us and has provided a great deal of information about the 50 million profiles. We're waiting on more information, but it's Cambridge Analytica that has been uncooperative with our investigation."
We've reached out to Cambridge Analytica for comment but did not receive an immediate reply. Considering how much emphasis the man identified as Nix in the video puts on client privacy, we're going to go out on a limb and guess that the company isn't very pleased.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that "Cambridge Analytica earned more than $16 million [$AU21 million] from 2014 to 2016 from nearly 20 Republican candidates and political committees". The campaign to elect Donald Trump for president accounted for $US5.9 million ($7.7 million) of that in 2016, according to FEC filings.
You can read the ICO's full formal statement here.