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Trump data firm leak spurs demand for tougher U.K. data watchdog

(Bloomberg) -- A top U.K. lawmaker backed sweeping new powers for the nation’s privacy watchdog in the wake of reports that Cambridge Analytica, the firm that helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential campaign, kept hold of information on tens of millions of Facebook users.

“The time has now come for us to look at giving more powers to the information commission in the U.K.,” Damian Collins, chair of the U.K. Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee, told LBC radio in an interview on Monday.

Elizabeth Denham, Britain’s current privacy chief should get “the power not just to request information from the companies but actually to have the legal powers to go into those companies and take that data if they won’t supply it,” he said. “Someone has to have the power to go behind the curtain and go in and see what these companies are doing to make sure that they are actually complying with U.K. law.”

Officials are demanding answers from Facebook after revelations over the weekend that a professor used the company’s log-in tools to get people to sign up for what he claimed was a personality-analysis app he had designed for academic purposes. To take the quiz, 270,000 people gave the app permission to access data via Facebook on themselves and their friends, exposing a network of 50 million people, according to The New York Times.

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Green LED lights and rows of fibre optic cables are seen feeding into a computer server inside a comms room at an office in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014. Vodafone Group Plc will ask telecommunications regulator Ofcom to guarantee that U.K. wireless carriers, which rely on BT's fiber network to transmit voice and data traffic across the country, are treated fairly when BT sets prices and connects their broadcasting towers. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Afterward, the professor violated Facebook’s terms when he passed along that data to Cambridge Analytica, the advertising-data firm that helped Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency.

Facebook found out about the breach in 2015, shut down the professor’s access and asked Cambridge Analytica to certify that it had deleted the user data, but suspended the data-analysis firm from its platform on Friday after learning the information wasn’t erased. Cambridge Analytica has denied that it still had access to the user data, and said it was working with Facebook on a solution.

The power to obtain data directly from a company would go beyond even what new EU rules will equip regulators across the bloc with when they kick in. Watchdogs like the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office will from May 25 have the power for the first time to fine any company that uses or processes EU user data as much as 4 percent of annual sales for serious violations.

U.K. privacy chief Denham on Monday said in an online statement that “any criminal or civil enforcement actions arising from” her probe into the alleged breach “will be pursued vigorously.”

Calls for Facebook to take responsibility for its role in the Cambridge Analytica leak escalated over the weekend to calls for Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg to appear in front of lawmakers. The social-media giant has previously testified about how its platform was used by Russian propagandists ahead of the 2016 election, although stopped short of placing Zuckerberg in front of government leaders.

Facebook Inc. said it is reviewing whether one of its own research employees knew about a leak of user information on 50 million people to Cambridge Analytica. The firm on Saturday denied that it still had access to the user data, and said it was working with Facebook on a solution. Cambridge Analytica has helped run advertising for various political campaigns, including Trump’s, by evaluating information on audience segments to predict who might best respond to targeted ad messages.

The EU’s justice chief Vera Jourova tweeted the news of the leak was “horrifying, if confirmed” and that “we don’t want this in the EU.” The EU commissioner will travel to the U.S. this week and said she “will seek further clarifications from #Facebook to understand this problem better.”

In a couple of tweets posted over the weekend, she said that she “will take all possible legal measures including the stricter #dataProtection rules” and that she expects “the companies to take more responsibility when handling our personal data.”