British PM backs investigation into Cambridge Analytica's Facebook data use

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday backed an investigation into Cambridge Analytica, the consultancy at the heart of a storm over the use of Facebook data.

Former Facebook operations manager tells U.K. committee that company was lax about protecting users' data

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the House of Commons Wednesday. May says she expects Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to 'comply fully' with the investigation. (EPA-EFE)

British Prime Minister Theresa May says allegations that Facebook users' data was improperly used by political campaigns are "very concerning."

May says she expects Facebook and data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica to "comply fully" with British authorities investigating how personal information was obtained and used.

May told lawmakers in the House of Commons that "people need to have confidence in how their personal data is used."

Authorities in Britain and the United States are investigating the alleged improper use of data harvested from tens of millions of Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, which worked on U.S. President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, details of which have been described in the past week by Canadian Christopher Wylie, who worked for Cambridge. Britain's information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has said she is pursuing a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica's servers. She has also asked Facebook to cease its own audit of Cambridge Analytica's data use.

Denham said the prime allegation against Cambridge Analytica is that it acquired personal data in an unauthorized way, adding that the data provisions act requires services like Facebook to have strong safeguards against misuse of data.

May said that "as far as I'm aware" the British government has no contracts with Cambridge Analytica or its parent company, SCL.
The offices of Cambridge Analytica in London are shown. A Cambridge psychologist employed by the company said Wednesday he's being made the scapegoat as the consultancy has come under fire in the past week. (Andy Rain/EPA-EFE)

A British government spokesperson soon after clarified that the Conservative Party once held discussions with Cambridge representatives, but nothing further was pursued.

"An approach was made and the party decided not to take that forward," the spokesperson said. He said the approach pre-dated May's time as leader, but did not have further details immediately available.

The British government had three contracts in the past with SCL, it was revealed. The contracts were with the Ministry of Defence between 2014-2015, the Home Office (interior ministry) in 2009 and the Foreign Office in 2008-2009, the spokesperson told reporters, adding there are no current contracts.

Meanwhile, an academic who developed the app used by Cambridge Analytica to harvest data from millions of Facebook users said Wednesday he had no idea his work would be used in Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and that he's being scapegoated in the fallout from the affair.

Alexandr Kogan, a psychology researcher at Cambridge University, told the BBC that both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have tried to place the blame on him for violating the social media platform's terms of service, even though Cambridge Analytica ensured him that everything he did was legal. "My view is that I'm being basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica," he said. "Honestly, we thought we were acting perfectly appropriately, we thought we were doing something that was really normal."

Authorities in Britain and the United States are investigating the alleged improper use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based political research firm. Facebook shares have dropped some nine per cent, lopping more than $50 billion off the company's market value, since the revelations were first published, raising questions about whether social media sites are violating users' privacy.

The head of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, was suspended Tuesday after Britain's Channel 4 News broadcast hidden camera footage of him suggesting the company could use young women to catch opposition politicians in compromising positions. Footage also showed Nix bragging about the firm's pivotal role in the Trump campaign.

Nix said Cambridge Analytica handled "all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting" for the Trump campaign, and used emails with a "self-destruct timer" to make the firm's role more difficult to trace.

"There's no evidence, there's no paper trail, there's nothing," he said.

In a statement, Cambridge Analytica's board said Nix's comments "do not represent the values or operations of the firm, and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation."

Facebook called lax

Facebook itself is drawing criticism from politicians on both sides of the Atlantic for its alleged failure to protect users' privacy.

Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook operations manager who worked in data protection in 2011 and 2012, told a U.K. parliamentary committee Wednesday that the company was vigilant about its network security but lax when it came to protecting users' data.

He said personal data including email addresses and in some cases private messages was allowed to leave Facebook servers with no real controls on how the data was used after that.

"The real challenge here is that Facebook was allowing developers to access the data of people who hadn't explicitly authorized that," he said, adding that the company had "lost sight" of what developers did with the data.

On Tuesday, the chairman of the U.K. Parliament's media committee, Damian Collins, said his group has repeatedly asked Facebook how it uses data, but company officials "have been misleading to the committee."

The committee summoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify. Facebook sidestepped questions on whether Zuckerberg would appear, saying instead that the company is currently focused on conducting its own reviews.

Leading Democrats in the U.S. Senate also called on Zuckerberg to testify. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Facebook's latest privacy scandal a "danger signal." She wants Zuckerberg's assurances that Facebook is prepared to take the lead on measures to protect user privacy — or Congress may step in.

Facebook and data company Cambridge Analytica are facing legal questions — in the U.K., a warrant has been ordered to search Cambridge Analytica's London headquarters, and on this side of the Atlantic, U.S. congressional staff are scheduled to be briefed by Facebook. Its the latest fallout after a whistleblower said Cambridge Analytica targeted millions of Americans during the election campaign without their knowledge based on psychological profiles and surveys using data obtained from Facebook 9:54

Kogan's work involved modelling human behaviour through social media. In collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, he developed a Facebook-based personality survey called "This Is Your Digital Life" and paid about 200,000 people to take part. As a result, participants unknowingly gave the researchers access to the profiles of their Facebook friends, allowing them to collect data from millions more users.

Kogan said Cambridge Analytica approached him to gather Facebook data and provided the legal advice that this was "appropriate."

"One of the great mistakes I did here was I just didn't ask enough questions," he said. "I had never done a commercial project; I didn't really have any reason to doubt their sincerity. That's certainly something I strongly regret now."

He said the firm paid some $800,000 US for the work, but it went to participants in the survey.

"My motivation was to get a dataset I could do research on; I have never profited from this in any way personally," he said.

With files from Reuters

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