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Digital World

Cambridge Analytica suspends CEO amid probe

March 20, 2018

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.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix
Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix speaks at a marketing conferenceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

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.

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. 

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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