The UK’s data watchdog has confirmed it has applied for an urgent warrant to raid the London HQ of Cambridge Analytica, the firm at the heart of a scandal over revelations it gained unauthorised access to tens of millions of Facebook profiles.
Speaking on Tuesday the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham branded the firm “uncooperative” and confirmed she is seeking a warrant to access data held by the firm.
The statement came as the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee requested Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg urgently appear before its own Fake News inquiry over what it called a “catastrophic failure of process”, accusing the company of “misleading” the committee in a previous hearing.
On Monday night consultants from the digital forensics firm Stroz Friedberg, who had been reportedly hired by Facebook to do an audit, were at Cambridge Analytica’s London office. The ICO asked them to leave so the authorities could pursue their own investigation.
The ICO statement confirmed it had asked Facebook to stand down its search of CA as “such a search would potentially compromise a regulatory investigation.”
On Tuesday morning the data firm’s London HQ appeared on lockdown, with a security guard strictly monitoring those entering.
As CA’s chief Alexander Nix entered the building, he was asked about the explosive undercover footage broadcast by Channel 4 on Monday evening, in which he was caught explaining how he could use sex workers to compromise politicians.
Nix responded to reporters by saying that “appearances can be deceptive”. When asked whether he had misled parliament when he gave evidence to a select committee on the firm’s practices, he said: “Absolutely not”.
Nix was then seen engaged in an animated discussion beside a window on the second floor of the building.
Not long after Nix entered, HuffPost UK saw around 10 crates filled with files and documents being assembled in the lobby of the building. Their provenance is unknown.
When two men loading the materials into a rental delivery van were asked if they were working for Cambridge Analytica, they refused to comment.
In the secretly filmed footage broadcast on Channel 4 news on Monday night, 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”.
CA, which provided services to Donald Trump’s election campaign, claimed the report was “edited and scripted to grossly misrepresent” the way the company conducts its business.
The firm said it routinely undertook conversations with prospective clients to “tease out any unethical or illegal intentions” and the executives “humoured” the reporter’s questions.
On Tuesday Bloomberg reported that US Federal Trade Commission is probing whether Facebook violated terms of a 2011 consent decree of its handing of user data that was transferred to Cambridge Analytica without their knowledge.
But Nix said: “In playing along with this line of conversation, and partly to spare our ‘client’ from embarrassment, we entertained a series of ludicrous hypothetical scenarios.
“I am aware how this looks, but it is simply not the case. I must emphatically state that Cambridge Analytica does not condone or engage in entrapment, bribes or so-called ‘honeytraps’, and nor does it use untrue material for any purpose.
“I deeply regret my role in the meeting and I have already apologised to staff.
CA was suspended from Facebook last week after it emerged that data on millions of users had not been destroyed as agreed.
Whistleblower Chris Wylie, a former research director at the UK-based company, told Channel 4 News a so-called data grab had been carried out on more than 50 million profiles in 2014.
Asked about the reports, Theresa May’s spokesman said: “The allegations are clearly very concerning.
“It is essential that people can have confidence that their personal data will be protected and used in an appropriate way.
“It is absolutely right that the Information Commissioner is investigating this matter.
“We expect Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and all the organisations involved to co-operate fully.”
The ICO is investigating the use of personal data for political campaign, including the activities of CA.
Denham said: “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.”