Mark Zuckerberg should appear before MPs and “stop hiding behind his Facebook page”, a politician has said, after it was revealed a British data firm had been suspended by the social networking site amid allegations it harvested personal details from more than 50 million users.
Damian Collins, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, also accused the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, of “deliberately misleading” Parliament and giving “false statements” to the committee following allegations it was passed personal data from Facebook apps without the consent of the individuals.
Facebook’s vice president and deputy general counsel Paul Grewal said in a blog post that University of Cambridge professor Dr Aleksandr Kogan had passed on information to Cambridge Analytica and others after launching a Facebook app called thisisyourdigitallife, the Press Association reported.
Despite assurances at the time this was discovered in 2015 that the data had been destroyed, the social media company was informed in recent days that this had not happened, prompting the suspension of the firm on suspicion it had flouted privacy rules.
Whistleblower Chris Wylie, a former research director at Cambridge Analytica, told Channel 4 News a so-called data grab had been carried out on more than 50 million profiles in 2014.
Kogan is alleged to have been involved in this, using his company called Global Science Research (GSR) to accrue information.
Collins said Nix had denied to the committee that his company had received any data from GSR, adding: “From the evidence that has been published by The Guardian and The Observer this weekend, it seems clear that he has deliberately misled the committee and Parliament by giving false statements.
“We will be contacting Alexander Nix next week asking him to explain his comments and answer further questions relating to the links between GSR and Cambridge Analytica, and its associate companies.”
Collins also said the committee had “repeatedly asked” Facebook about how companies acquire and hold on to user data from the site, and whether information had been taken from people without their consent.
“Their answers have consistently understated this risk and have also been misleading to the committee,” he said.
“I will be writing to Mark Zuckerberg asking that either he, or another senior executive from the company, appear to give evidence in front of the committee as part our inquiry.”
He added: “We need to hear from people who can speak about Facebook from a position of authority that requires them to know the truth.
“The reputation of this company is being damaged by stealth because of their constant failure to respond with clarity and authority to the questions of genuine public interest that are being directed to them.
“Someone has to take responsibility for this. It’s time for Mark Zuckerberg to stop hiding behind his Facebook page.”
It’s time for Mark Zuckerberg to stop hiding behind his Facebook page."
Cambridge Analytica played a key role in mapping out the behaviour of voters in the run-up to the 2016 US election and was also used during the EU referendum campaign earlier that year.
Wylie alleged that the data grab involved users being offered a small amount of money to complete a survey on the condition they consented to share personal details through Facebook.
This, it is claimed, allowed researchers to build personality and psychological profiles on millions of users.
He told Channel 4 News: “Imagine I go and ask you: I say, ‘Hey, if I give you a dollar, two dollars, could you fill up this survey for me, just do it on this app’, and you say, ‘Fine’.
“I don’t just capture what your responses are, I capture all of the information about you from Facebook, but also this app then crawls through your social network and captures all that data also.
“By you filling out my survey, I capture 300 records on average.
“So that means that, all of a sudden, I only need to engage 50,000, 70,000, 100,000 people to get a really big data set really quickly, and it’s scaled really quickly.
“We were able to get upwards of 50 million-plus Facebook records in the span of a couple of months.”
He added that “almost none” of the individuals knew about how their data was used.
Cambridge Analytica could then tailor specific political adverts to small groups of people, already knowing what their likes and interests were, it is alleged.
The firm said in response to the claims that it was “quite obvious” the former employee “had a grudge to bear” and dismissed his accusations as “pure fantasy”.
Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she would investigate the circumstances “in which Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used”.
It will form part of an ongoing inquiry into the “use of data analytics for political purposes”.
She added in a statement: “It is important that the public are fully aware of how information is used and shared in modern political campaigns, and the potential impact on their privacy.
“We are continuing to invoke all of our powers and are pursuing a number of live lines of inquiry. Any criminal and civil enforcement actions arising from the investigation will be pursued vigorously”.
In a response to its suspension from Facebook, Cambridge Analytica said it fully complied with Facebook’s terms of services.
It added: “Cambridge Analytica’s commercial and political divisions use social media platforms for outward marketing, delivering data-led and creative content to targeted audiences. They do not use or hold data from Facebook profiles.”
The statement continued: “No data from GSR was used by Cambridge Analytica as part of the services it provided to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign.
“Cambridge Analytica only receives and uses data that has been obtained legally and fairly. Our robust data protection policies comply with US, international, European Union and national regulations.”
Facebook said Kogan, Cambridge Analytica, parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories and Wylie’s accounts would all be suspended “pending further information”.