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The U.K.'s data protection watchdog ordered Facebook's auditors to back down from a probe into a political analytics company accused of wrongly harvesting the data of millions of its users.
The tech giant was planning to investigate Cambridge Analytica's servers and systems, but the Information Commissioner's Office told Facebook on Monday that it should withdraw from the research firm's London premises. The ICO said it would seek to gain its own warrant to access the company's computers and servers.
Facebook had said Monday that it was pursuing a forensic audit of Cambridge Analytica and had hired digital forensics firm Stroz Friedberg to determine whether the data analytics company still possessed Facebook user data.
But in an updated statement later that day, Facebook said: "Independent forensic auditors from Stroz Friedberg were on site at Cambridge Analytica's London office this evening. At the request of the U.K. Information Commissioner's Office, which has announced it is pursuing a warrant to conduct its own on-site investigation, the Stroz Friedberg auditors stood down."
Reports over the weekend said political analytics firm Cambridge Analytica was able to collect data on millions of people's profiles without their consent. The firm worked on Facebook ads with President Donald Trump's campaign in 2016, but the data allegedly held by Cambridge Analytica was not used in the 2016 Trump presidential election campaign, the company claims.
According to Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower who worked for Cambridge Analytica during the election, the company mined the data of 50 million Facebook profiles.
Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan and his company Global Science Research created an app called "thisisyourdigitallife," which used psychological tests to gather data on users. According to Wylie, Kogan then passed that data onto Cambridge Analytica, enabling the latter to develop software that could potentially influence voters.
Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said Monday that she would apply to the court system to pursue a warrant to access Cambridge Analytica's servers.
"We need to get in there, we need to look at the databases, we need to look at the servers, and understand how data was processed or deleted by Cambridge Analytica," Denham told U.K. TV show Channel 4 News. "There are a lot of conflicting stories about the data."
Channel 4 News screened an expose Monday that purported to show executives at Cambridge Analytica suggesting on camera that the firm could use sex workers, bribes, ex-spies and fake news to help political candidates win votes around the world.
Cambridge Analytica said the Channel 4 News report was "edited and scripted" to misrepresent the company. It has also denied reports published over the weekend that it harvested the data wrongly, and called Wylie "a former contractor for Cambridge Analytica — not a founder as has been claimed — who left in 2014 and is misrepresenting himself and the company throughout his comments."
"In 2014, we received Facebook data and derivatives of Facebook data from another company, GSR, that we engaged in good faith to legally supply data for research," the company said in a statement.
"After it subsequently became known that GSR had broken its contract with Cambridge Analytica because it had not adhered to data protection regulation, Cambridge Analytica deleted all the Facebook data and derivatives, in cooperation with Facebook."
According to U.K. government records, GSR was dissolved in October.
Cambridge Analytica was suspended from Facebook last week over the scandal but said in response that it "fully complies with Facebook's terms of service" and was in contact with the platform.
The ICO is investigating 30 separate organizations, including social media companies, data analytics firms, political campaigns and political parties, over the use of such analytical methods for political purposes.
The watchdog is applying for a warrant to access Cambridge Analytica's servers on Tuesday. Denham said that the firm had been "uncooperative" with the regulator over its concerns.
Addressing Facebook's decision to investigate Cambridge Analytica, Denham said in a statement: "On 19 March, Facebook announced that it will stand down its search of Cambridge Analytica's premises at our request. Such a search would potentially compromise a regulatory investigation."
Wylie will give evidence before a U.K. select committee next week, Damian Collins, chairman of the House of Commons Digital, Media and Sport Committee, said Monday. Collins said he will write to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to ask that he, or another Facebook executive or spokesperson, gives evidence to the select committee as well.
Collins said on Twitter that investigations into Cambridge Analytica should be undertaken by "proper authorities" such as the ICO after it was revealed that Facebook had backed down from its audit.
Many analysts and commentators have raised concern over the leadership of Facebook as a result of the revelations.