The chair of a parliamentary committee has demanded that Mark Zuckerberg “stop hiding behind his Facebook page” and come before MPs to respond to allegations of data misuse by the UK-headquartered political research outfit Cambridge Analytica.
Damian Collins, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, hit out amid revelations that a company called Global Science Research (GSR), working alongside Cambridge Analytica, had harvested the personal details of 50m Facebook users in 2014.
“Data has been taken from Facebook users without their consent, and was then processed by a third party and used to support their campaigns,” he noted, adding: “I will be writing to Mark Zuckerberg asking that either he, or another senior executive from the company, appear to give evidence."
Cambridge Analytica, partly owned by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, worked on several high-profile operations including Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign.
The company uses social media metrics to profile citizens and serve them with personalised advertising. In the case in question, it obtained the analytical data via a personality test application.
Last Friday, Facebook suddenly announced on its website that it had suspended the account linked to Cambridge Analytica. Just prior to multiple media reports going live, the social network revealed it first learned about the vast data collection in 2015. The culprit app, it said, was designed by GSR chief and University of Cambridge professor Aleksandr Kogan.
Last month, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, told MPs the firm had never used private Facebook data. “We do not work with Facebook data and we do not have Facebook data,” he asserted.
In his own statement, Collins hit back: “It seems clear that [Nix] has deliberately mislead the committee and parliament by giving false statements.”
The UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which probes major leaks and data breaches, has launched an investigation into the allegations. Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said: “We are investigating the circumstances in which Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used.
"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.”
It is believed that an upcoming Channel 4 report will contain undercover footage of Cambridge Analytica executives – including Nix – discussing its business practices.
A whistleblower who helped to set up Cambridge Analytica told the Observer newspaper: “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 that the entire company was built on.”
In a statement posted online last Friday, the under-fire political analytics firm said: “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."