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U.K. data chief seeks to search Cambridge Analytica over breach

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s privacy watchdog said it’s requesting a search warrant to comb the offices of Cambridge Analytica as part of an investigation into allegations the firm retained information on millions of Facebook users without their consent.

Cambridge Analytica failed to respond to an access request by the Information Commissioner’s Office, forcing the authority to seek a warrant “to obtain information and access to systems and evidence,” it said in a statement on Tuesday. Elizabeth Denham, Britain’s current privacy chief, told Channel 4 News last night that her agency was is in the process of obtaining a warrant.

Facebook had enlisted the firm Stroz Friedberg to assess advertising-data provider Cambridge Analytica, whose handling of Facebook user data has mired the social networking company in controversy.

“On March 19, Facebook announced that it will stand down its search of Cambridge Analytica premises at the Information Commissioner’s request,” the ICO said in the statement. “Such a search would potentially compromise a regulatory investigation.”

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Web servers stand inside the Facebook Inc. Prineville Data Center in Prineville, Oregon, U.S. Photographer: Meg Roussos/Bloomberg

Speaking to BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, Denham said that the ICO was "concerned about the integrity of our investigation. We are also looking at Facebook at the same time. Our advice to Facebook was ’back away.’"

At issue is information on millions of Facebook users that Cambridge Analytica obtained from a researcher who shared the data without Facebook’s permission. According to published news reports, Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan created a personality-analysis app that was used by 270,000 Facebook users, who in turn gave the app permission to access data on themselves and their friends, ultimately exposing a network of 50 million.

Kogan and Cambridge Analytica had agreed to be audited by Stroz Friedberg to determine whether the data company still has the information.

Cambridge Analytica didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the ICO search warrant request.

EU data privacy regulators are expected to discuss the issue at a regular meeting in Brussels on Tuesday too. EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova said she plans to meet with Facebook while on an official visit in the U.S. this week and seek answers.

“From a European Union perspective, the misuse for political purposes of personal data belonging to Facebook users -- if confirmed -- is not acceptable,” the European Commission said in emailed statement sent late on Monday.

--With assistance from Robert Hutton