U.K. privacy chief wants powers to access data more quickly

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(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s privacy regulator, who’s leading European investigations into how political consultants accessed the data of millions of Facebook Inc. users, said British data-protection laws are slowing her progress.

Elizabeth Denham, the U.K.’s Information Commissioner, said she is “in intense discussion” with the government to broaden the nation’s data protection law. Denham’s office is playing a key role in uncovering the work of Cambridge Analytica, which worked on Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential campaign with techniques that included using data from as many as 87 million Facebook clients.

“Of course, we need to respect the rights of companies, but we also need streamlined warrant processes with a lower threshold than we currently have in the law,” Denham said at a conference in London on Wednesday. “We need the regime to reflect the reality that data crimes are real crimes.”

Denham’s call for extended powers for her office follows that by U.K. lawmaker Damian Collins last month to further strengthen the ICO and give it police powers in investigations. Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman James Slack last month said the government would listen to calls from lawmakers. New EU data protection rules taking effect next month will boost regulators’ fining powers -- including those of the ICO -- and allow them to levy penalties of as much as 4 percent of a company’s annual sales.

Denham’s office is combing through evidence it collected in searches of Cambridge Analytica’s offices on March 23, shortly after it got the warrant it had been seeking from a court for days.

“I’m in intense discussion with government to ensure that as part of the data protection bill, the ICO has the ability to move more quickly to obtain information that we need to carry out our investigations in the public interest,” Denham said on Wednesday. “As society moves increasingly online, data protection law needs to have the comprehensive reach that people would expect of laws in a physical world.”

Denham has called the Cambridge Analytica case a “game changer” for the world of privacy. She’s “never been involved in an investigation playing out so publicly with witnesses giving evidence to the media, Parliament and publishing online,” Denham said Wednesday.

“Speculation is rife, but our investigation will be thorough, independent and focused and we will make our findings and conclusions public,” she said. “If we find that the law has been broken, we will take the necessary enforcement action.”

Bloomberg News