ICO could raid controversial data harvesters Cambridge Analytica as early as today

Pressure to act building on regulators to take decisive action in the light of shocking #UncoveringCambridgeAnalytica revelations of last few days

Posted 20 March 2018 by Gary Flood

The last four days have seen a dramatic raising of the temperature in the growing controversy over alleged data harvesting for political purposes by Cambridge Analytica.

Many were shocked by the weekend’s whistleblower allegations that personal Facebook data was siphoned off without user consent or knowledge to create social media campaigns for its clients by the data-driven ‘political consultancy’.

A former data scientist staffer told The Observer he had helped funnel personal online information to feed algorithms to predict and to influence voting patterns in the US elections: “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. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

That confession has now been swiftly followed up by a hard-hitting expose on last night’s Channel 4 News of the firm’s willingness to employ a wide range of dirty tricks to help clients has prompted the UK’s official privacy regulator, the ICO, into firm action.

As the revelations came out over successive days, the body’s head, the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Warren, has been updating her planned response, stating on Saturday that she was “investigating the circumstances in which Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used” and that she and her team were “continuing to invoke all of our powers and are pursuing a number of live lines of inquiry”, adding that, “Any criminal and civil enforcement actions arising from the investigation will be pursued vigorously.”

Only yesterday, she had gone so far as to state that, “A full understanding of the facts, data flows and data uses is imperative for my ongoing investigation. This includes any new information, statements or evidence that have come to light in recent days.

“Our investigation into the use of personal data for political campaigns, includes the acquisition and use of Facebook data by SCL, Doctor Kogan and Cambridge Analytica… This is a complex and far reaching investigation for my office, and any criminal or civil enforcement actions arising from it will be pursued vigorously.”

But last night’s Channel 4 News’ #UncoveringCambridgeAnalytica report may have forced her hand.

Interviewed live on-air immediately after a lengthy report on the company’s promises to help clients in, shall we say, unconventional ways, mainly based on secret filing of senior Cambridge Analytica employee statements to an undercover reporting team, Warren said that she would now look to gain a warrant to examine the company’s use of data from a judge today (Tuesday).

Cambridge Analytica has denied all the allegations, claiming the Channel 4 story is “entrapment” and “mischaracterisation”.

Facebook shares have taken a huge hit on the back of the revelations, falling 7% so far.

That may not be the only fallout from the stories – with many commentators, especially in the US, predicting its salad days are over and that increased regulation of its activities are now probably inevitable.

We’ll continue to cover this fast-moving story, given its importance around the use of personal data to drive digital services.