LONDON – The head of Trump-affiliated data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica has been suspended by the company, as government authorities bear down on both Cambridge and Facebook over allegations the analytics firm stole data from 50 million Facebook users to manipulate elections.
Cambridge Analytica’s board of directors suspended CEO Alexander Nix pending an investigation after Nix boasted of various unsavory services to an undercover reporter for Britain’s Channel 4 News.
Channel 4 News broadcast clips Tuesday that also showed Nix saying his data-mining firm played a major role in securing Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections.
Nix said the firm handled “all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting” and said Cambridge used emails with a “self-destruct timer” to make its role more difficult to trace.
“There’s no evidence, there’s no paper trail, there’s nothing,” he said.
In a statement, Cambridge’s board said Nix’s comments “do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation.”
Cambridge has denied wrongdoing, and Trump’s campaign has said it didn’t use Cambridge’s data.
Facebook also drew continued criticism for its alleged inaction to protect users’ privacy. Earlier Tuesday, the chairman of the U.K. parliamentary media committee, Damian Collins, said his group has repeatedly asked Facebook how it uses data. He said Facebook officials “have been misleading to the committee.”
The committee has summoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify.
“It is now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process,” Collins wrote to Zuckerberg. “Given your commitment at the start of the New Year to ‘fixing’ Facebook, I hope that this representative will be you.”
Leading Democrats in the U.S. Senate have also called on Zuckerberg to testify. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Facebook’s latest privacy scandal a “danger signal.” She wants Zuckerberg’s assurances that Facebook is prepared to take the lead on security measures that protect people’s privacy — or Congress may step in.
Facebook sidestepped questions on whether Zuckerberg would appear, saying instead that it’s currently focused on conducting its own reviews.
The request to appear comes as Britain’s information commissioner said she was using all her legal powers to investigate the social-media giant and Cambridge Analytica.
Commissioner Elizabeth Denham is pursuing a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s servers. She has also asked Facebook to cease its own audit of Cambridge Analytica’s data use.
“Our advice to Facebook is to back away and let us go in and do our work,” she said.
Facebook has weathered many such blow-ups before and is used to apologizing and moving on. But the stakes are bigger this time. The latest scandal has some people reconsidering their relationship status with the social network, though there isn’t much of anywhere else to go.
Cambridge Analytica said it is committed to helping the U.K. investigation. However, Denham’s office said the firm failed to meet a deadline to produce information requested.
Denham said the prime allegation against Cambridge Analytica is that it acquired personal data in an unauthorized way, adding that laws on data protection require services like Facebook to have strong safeguards against misuse of data.
Chris Wylie, who once worked for Cambridge Analytica, is quoted as having said the company used the data to build psychological profiles so voters could be targeted with ads and stories.
Wylie has agreed to be interviewed by Democrats on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee. A date has not been set, and it’s unclear if Republicans on the panel will attend.
On Tuesday, Wylie said he found Facebook’s reaction to the revelations bizarre. He told an audience at the Frontline Club in London that before the story broke Facebook had agreed to work with him to improve its platform. But he said he was blindsided on Friday with a news release that identified him as a suspect in the case.
Cambridge Analytica is subject to a number of allegations of wrongdoing. Britain’s Channel 4 used an undercover investigation to record Nix saying that the company could use unorthodox methods to wage successful political campaigns for clients.
In footage released Monday, Nix said the company could “send some girls” around to a rival candidate’s house, suggesting that girls from Ukraine are beautiful and effective in this role.
He also said the company could “offer a large amount of money” to a rival candidate and have the whole exchange recorded so it could be posted on the internet to show that the candidate was corrupt.
Nix says in a statement that he deeply regrets his role in the meeting and has apologized to staff.
“I am aware how this looks, but it is simply not the case,” he said. “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 purposes.”
Nix told the BBC that the Channel 4 sting was “intended to embarrass us.”
“We see this as a coordinated attack by the media that’s been going on for very, very many months in order to damage the company that had some involvement with the election of Donald Trump,” he said.
The data harvesting used by Cambridge Analytica has also triggered calls for further investigation from the European Union, as well as federal and state officials in the United States.
On Tuesday, a dozen consumer-advocacy organizations pressed the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S. to investigate whether the release of data violated an agreement Facebook signed with the FTC in 2011 offering privacy assurances.
The move comes after Bloomberg News first reported the FTC could already be investigating. The FTC hasn’t confirmed it is investigating but said it takes “any allegations of violations of our consent decrees very seriously.”