Cambridge Analytica: UK regulator seeks search warrant

The firm is under fire for harvesting the data of millions of Facebook users and selling it to political actors. A recently surfaced video also purports to show the company's CEO promoting bribery and entrapment.

The British data protection authority was seeking a warrant to search the London offices of Cambridge Analytica on Tuesday.

The Information Commissioner's Office is in the midst of a broad investigation into the data research firm's operations after a whistleblower revealed that it had illegally harvested data on millions users and allegedly sold the data for political purposes.

The story so far:

  • On Sunday, whistleblower Christopher Wylie told Britain's Observer and the New York Times that the company had harvested the data of 50 million Facebook users in order to target them with personalized political ads.
  • The incident is one of Facebook's largest-ever data breaches.
  • Since Wylie's revelations, reports have emerged that Cambridge Analytica executives also tried to influence other election campaigns, such as the contested re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya.
  • Cambridge Analytica executives were also caught on tape, shown by Britain's Channel 4, in which they appear to be proposing pressuring political targets with Ukrainian sex workers.
  • Cambridge Analytica's board on Tuesday suspended CEO Alexander Nix pending an independent investigation of his actions.
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01:40 mins.
Business | 19.03.2018

Facebook to investigate data abuse

Pressure mounts

"We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people's profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons," co-founder Wylie told the Observer.

UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told Channel 4: "I think we should all be shocked by this ... I'm not accepting their response so therefore I'll be applying to the court for a warrant."

Facebook agreed to Denham's request to call off its own audit of Cambridge Analytica. "If this data still exists, it would be a grave violation of Facebook's policies and an unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments these groups made," the company said.

The European Union's Data Protection Commissioner later said she was "following up" with Facebook to ensure it had effective oversight over app developers' use of its data. She said the issue mainly affected US users and was already being investigated by the UK.

Read more: Fake news '70 percent more likely to be shared'

Denial of wrongdoing: Cambridge Analytica has said that it is undergoing an internal review in relation to the allegations it may have violated Facebook's policies. It has vehemently denied that it was promoting bribery and entrapment, however. 

Fighting for the internet: Social media, governments and tech companies

Free speech or illegal content?

Whether hate speech, propaganda or activism, governments across the globe have upped efforts to curb content deemed illegal from circulating on social networks. From drawn-out court cases to blanket bans, DW examines how some countries try to stop the circulation of illicit content while others attempt to regulate social media.

Fighting for the internet: Social media, governments and tech companies

Social media law

After a public debate in Germany, a new law on social media came into effect in October. The legislation imposes heavy fines on social media companies, such as Facebook, for failing to take down posts containing hate speech. Facebook and other social media companies have complained about the law, saying that harsh rules might lead to unnecessary censorship.

Fighting for the internet: Social media, governments and tech companies

Right to be forgotten

In 2014, the European Court of Justice ruled that European citizens had the right to request search engines, such as Google and Bing, remove "inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive" search results linked to their name. Although Google has complied with the ruling, it has done so reluctantly, warning that it could make the internet as "free as the world's least free place."

Fighting for the internet: Social media, governments and tech companies

Blanket ban

In May 2017, Ukraine imposed sanctions on Russian social media platforms and web services. The blanket ban affected millions of Ukrainian citizens, many of whom were anxious about their data. The move prompted young Ukrainians to protest on the streets, calling for the government to reinstate access to platforms that included VKontakte (VK), Russia's largest social network.

Fighting for the internet: Social media, governments and tech companies

Safe Harbor

In 2015, the European Court of Justice ruled that Safe Harbor, a 15-year-old pact between the US and EU that allowed the transfer of personal data without prior approval, was effectively invalid. Austrian law student Max Schrems launched the legal proceedings against Facebook in response to revelations made by former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden.

Fighting for the internet: Social media, governments and tech companies


In China, the use of social media is highly regulated by the government. Beijing has effectively blocked access to thousands of websites and platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. Instead, China offers its citizens access to local social media platforms, such as Weibo and WeChat, which boast hundreds of millions of monthly users.

Fighting for the internet: Social media, governments and tech companies

Twitter bans Russia-linked accounts

Many politicians and media outlets blame Russia's influence for Donald Trump's election victory in 2016. Moscow reportedly used Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Instagram to shape public opinion on key issues. In October 2017, Twitter suspended over 2,750 accounts due to alleged Russian propaganda. The platform also banned ads from RT (formerly Russia Today) and the Sputnik news agency.

Fighting for the internet: Social media, governments and tech companies

Facebook announces propaganda-linked tool

With social media under pressure for allowing alleged Russian meddling, Facebook announced a new project to combat such efforts in November 2017. The upcoming page will give users a chance to check if they "liked" or followed an alleged propaganda account on Facebook or Instagram. Meanwhile, Facebook has come under fire for not protecting user data in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

What is Cambridge Analytica? The data-collecting firm was founded in 2013 as an offshoot of SCL Group, a government and military contractor that works on everything from food security research to election campaigns. It allegedly used Facebook data to help Donald Trump win the 2016 US presidential elections.

Read more: EU: Twitter, Facebook still in violation of the bloc's consumer law

What happens next: Facebook has suspended the firm's account as UK regulators conduct their investigation. The social media giant has itself been the target for calls of an investigation into how Cambridge Analytica was so easily able to amass "unprecedented amounts of personal data." Democratic and Republican US senators have called for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress.

es/rt (Reuters, AFP)

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