The offices of a British data harvesting company look set to be searched after bosses were secretly filmed claiming they could entrap politicians with ‘beautiful girls’ and used ex-spies to dig dirt on them, it was revealed today.
The Information Commissioner has stepped in after Cambridge Analytica chief executive Alexander Nix was filmed bragging that the British firm covertly campaigns in elections worldwide, using shadowy front companies.
Elizabeth Denham said she would apply for a search warrant against CA as it had been ‘uncooperative’.
She said: ‘This is a complex and far-reaching investigation … any criminal or civil enforcement actions arising from it will be pursued vigorously’.
Mrs Denham also revealed that Facebook had already been allowed in to carry out its search CA’s central London office but will now ‘stand down’.
Elizabeth Denham said she would apply for a search warrant against CA, run by Alexander Nix (pictured today), as it had been ‘uncooperative’
One filmed meeting, Mr Nix appears to suggest that CA could compromise politicians by sending ‘beautiful’ Ukrainian women to candidates’ houses
In a statement, the Information Commissioner’s Office added: ‘On March 7, the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, issued a Demand for Access to records and data in the hands of Cambridge Analytica.
‘Cambridge Analytica has not responded to the Commissioner by the deadline provided; therefore, the Information Commissioner is seeking a warrant to obtain information and access to systems and evidence related to her investigation.
‘On March 19, Facebook announced that it will stand down its search of Cambridge Analytica premises at the Information Commissioner’s request. Such a search would potentially compromise a regulatory investigation’.
The scandal raises further questions over CA’s practices following allegations it gathered personal details from more than 50million Facebook accounts without users’ permission.
Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve is among those calling for tougher penalties for anyone who abuses online data.
He told the BBC: ‘I do think we need to give some very serious thought to raising the penalties in relation to this, particularly in relation to the individuals involved.
‘Most of these penalties are financial. In the past, quite frankly, they have been relatively minor. The Government’s new regime is designed to be much tougher but I think we do have to look carefully at this.
‘If there is evidence that data mining is being used to try to influence outcomes of elections of elections or referendums or anything else I think that is a serious matter.
‘It will start to create in the mind of the public an anxiety that in fact they are being manipulated’.
The offices of Cambridge Analytica in central London today, which could be raided
A whistleblower claimed the firm used the data to build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box, particularly in the run-up to the 2016 US election.
During one filmed meeting, Mr Nix appears to suggest that CA could compromise politicians by sending ‘beautiful’ Ukrainian women to candidates’ houses.
Discussing CA’s ‘effective’ election tactics, he says they could film themselves posing as wealthy developers and encourage a politician to accept a bribe then put the footage on the internet.
Whistleblower Christopher Wylie said the firm used the private social media activity of a large portion of the U.S. electorate to develop techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016
Offering bribes to public officials is an offence in the UK, where CA operates, and in the US, where it is registered.
The apparent admissions were shown in a Channel 4 investigation in which an undercover reporter posed as a fixer for a wealthy client hoping to get candidates elected in Sri Lanka.
Between November 2017 and January, they filmed meetings with Mr Nix, CA Political Global’s Mark Turnbull, and chief data officer Dr Alex Tayler.
The executives claimed CA and parent firm Strategic Communications Laboratories had worked in more than 200 elections, including in Kenya, the Czech Republic and India.
At one point, Mr Turnbull describes how, having obtained damaging material on opponents, CA can discreetly push it on to social media and the internet.
He says ‘we just put information into the bloodstream of the internet, and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again … like a remote control. It has to happen without anyone thinking, ‘That’s propaganda’.’ Mr Turnbull said their influence would be ‘very, very, very discreet’ so ‘no record exists with our name attached’.
He added that they have links to ‘specialist organisations … so you know who the opposition is, you know their secrets’. When asked about digging up material on political opponents, Mr Nix says they could ‘send some girls around to the candidate’s house’, adding that Ukrainian girls ‘are very beautiful, I find that works very well’. Mr Nix has been accused of misleading the Commons culture committee over the alleged Facebook data grab. He has denied the claims.
CA told Channel 4: ‘We entirely refute any allegation that CA or any of its affiliates use entrapment, bribes or so-called honeytraps for any purpose … CA does not use untrue material for any purpose.’
Mr Nix said the question of whether he stayed with the company was ‘a decision for the board’. ‘If that is going to help the company that is the right thing to happen,’ he told The Times.
‘There are 150 young people whose future is on the line. This is profoundly upsetting.’
Facebook saw £25billion wiped off its value yesterday as the backlash over harvesting the personal details of 50million accounts intensified.
Shares in the social media giant fell 6.7 per cent to their lowest level in five years as web users called for a boycott of the site.
MPs demanded the firm be brought to heel as Theresa May’s spokesman said the allegations surrounding Facebook and British data firm Cambridge Analytica were ‘very concerning’.
Digital minister Margot James yesterday said the Government should force web giants to sign a code of conduct and warned the public needs ‘protection’ from the ‘Wild West’ industry. Asked about Cambridge Analytica, which allegedly used the personal data of Facebook users to predict elections, Mrs James said: ‘That cannot go unchecked, unanswered. The harms are too great.’
Cambridge Analytica had ties with the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election
European Parliament president Antonio Tajani weighed in, claiming the findings constituted ‘an unacceptable violation of our citizens’ privacy rights’.
It came as scores of social media users took to Twitter to post the hashtag: ‘Boycott Facebook’.
Yet in the wake of mounting criticism, Facebook’s Europe chief refused to answer questions at a conference yesterday, instead saying: ‘I’m just on my way out. I’m sorry. I can’t talk to you.’