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Information Commissioner awaits warrant to search Cambridge Analytica offices

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A team of investigators from the UK watchdog is being held up by court delays and a lack of cooperation from the firm at the centre of a scandal over alleged attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election

The team of investigators poised to seize records from a consultancy firm accused of using the personal data of 50 million Facebook members to influence the 2016 US election in favour of Donald Trump has still not obtained a warrant to carry out its probe.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) confirmed this morning that a High Court judge had adjourned its application, made several days ago, for a warrant relating to Cambridge Analytica (CA) until tomorrow. That means painstaking searches of offices and forensic inspections of servers and digital devices may not start until next week, if at all.

The length of time taken for the watchdog to obtain the legal right to enter CA premises raises questions over the potential for its investigation to ultimately find out the truth of what went on. The request for a warrant was described as 'urgent' when it was applied for earlier this week, yet the legal process of obtaining the document is still rumbling on.

The development follows warnings from World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee that the scandal marks a watershed moment for the internet, as well as calls in the UK parliament for a thorough investigation.

In the past week E&T has spoken to several legal experts who say it may be possible for UK Facebook users whose data was used by CA to sue the social media giant on the basis of existing data-protection rules.

Figures familiar with digital investigations regard it as unlikely that CA would seek to destroy any material sought by the ICO, though this is at least a theoretical possibility. CA’s apparent reluctance to cooperate with the ICO is viewed as suspect.

“It is unusual for the watchdog to experience this kind of pushback,” one privacy expert remarked.

Earlier this week the Information Commissioner dramatically forced Facebook's own auditors to pull out of CA's offices - possibly indicating a lack of trust between the two parties.

Marion Oswald, who has advised the UK government on digital rights, told E&T: “If they [Cambridge Analytica] do deliberately destroy evidence then I’m sure there will be ramifications. I think I’d be highly doubtful that they would be doing that, but there is obviously that risk. Clearly a delay in getting a warrant is not ideal.”

She added: “We need detail about what happened, about who told what to whom and when.

“Currently, Cambridge Analytica seems to be saying one thing, Facebook seems to be saying something else and the person who developed the personality test app [Dr Aleksandr Kogan, who was responsible for the technology allegedly used to harvest users’ data] is saying something completely different.”

The success or otherwise of any lawsuits aimed at Facebook or CA would be likely to hinge on what information was provided to users in the site’s terms of service at the relevant time, Oswald said.

Dr Andrea Calderaro, who advises governments on cybersecurity and geopolitics in the digital age, told E&T:  “The guy who was behind this app was a guy from Cambridge, a researcher from the department of psychology, because they were interested in understanding how people behaved online based on different metrics.”

It is alleged that the app indirectly allowed bespoke propaganda to be targeted at specific voters with the intention of influencing their choice of who to vote for during the presidential election.

Calderaro said the technology allegedly used by CA was predicated on an assumption that “based on a person’s tendency or how fragile they are around certain issues, if you then manage to expose them to certain information, you may be able to get a specific result”.

He explained: “There are classic profiles of people who vote for right-wing parties, and then there are ‘borderline’ profiles, and the idea is that they can push that person in the direction of voting a certain way by exposing them to certain information.”

Facebook has seen billions of US dollars wiped off its market value following the row involving CA. The social network’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has maintained that as soon as his company became aware of the practice of harvesting data in the ways alleged, it banned Kogan’s app from Facebook and ordered CA to delete the data that had been gathered using it.

There have also been claims that CA sought to entrap candidates in other elections using traditional ‘dirty tricks’ involving bribes and escorts.

The firm’s chief executive Alexander Nix, who was suspended from his role by the company’s board earlier this week, has denied carrying out ‘sting’ operations against candidates after footage emerged appearing to show him boasting about using “beautiful girls” to entrap clients’ political opponents.

Cambridge Analytica has denied wrongdoing.

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