In a potentially ground-breaking move, a British data watchdog has ordered Cambridge Analytica to turn over all the information it collected on an American voter, including any personal data from Facebook.
The firm, founded by key Trump supporters Robert and Rebekah Mercer and overseen by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, is closing shop following accusations that it helped itself to personal data allegedly collected by subterfuge from Facebook users for targeted political messages.
If the order by the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office isn’t shot down on appeal, it could open the way for court action in Britain by as many as 240 million Facebook users whose personal data was also believed to be collected by Cambridge Analytica.
The firm announced Wednesday it’s declaring bankruptcy and shutting down operations, but the U.K. information commissioner warned that ignoring the order would be considered a “criminal offense,” The Guardian reported. It has 30 days to provide the information or face an “unlimited fine.”
“The company has consistently refused to co-operate with our investigation into this case and has refused to answer our specific enquiries in relation to the complainant’s personal data — what they had, where they got it from and on what legal basis they held it,” Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham wrote.
Parsons School of Design associate professor David Carroll brought his case to the Information Commissioner’s Office under Britain’s data protection act after he found out that data had been gathered on him.
“This should solve a lot of mysteries about what the company did with data and where it got it from,” he told The Guardian.
Cambridge Analytica initially worked on Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) presidential campaign, then it switched to Trump’s campaign.
A whistleblower revealed in March that a University of Cambridge psychology professor gathered enormous amounts of personal information from Facebook users under the guise of personality tests in a Facebook app. The information was then sold to Cambridge Analytica beginning in 2015. Data may have been harvested from as many as 240 million Facebook accounts.
Facebook told Cambridge Analytica to destroy the information, but it never followed up, according to whistleblower Christopher Wylie. Facebook said in a statement in mid-March that it had only discovered days earlier that not all harvested data had been destroyed by Cambridge Analytica. It then suspended the firm from its social media platform.
Cambridge Analytica denied improperly obtaining or hanging on to the data.
The suspected massive breach has raised some calls in Congress to institute tough new privacy protections concerning Facebook and other social media. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before committees in both houses of Congress last month as part of the fallout.
Wylie said Cambridge Analytica used the enormous amounts of personal data it harvested through Facebook to “fight a culture war in America.”
Secret recordings obtained by Britain’s Channel 4 News caught Cambridge Analytica executives talking about the lengths they would go to in order to win campaigns. Then-CEO Alexander Nix suggested that they would “send” some sex workers around to obtain compromising material on a hypothetical rival candidate. Nix was later suspended.