Theresa May challenged to 'come clean' on Cambridge Analytica links

Theresa May has been challenged to 'come clean' on the Conservative Party's links to a political consultancy firm accused of using the details of millions of Facebook users to target voters in breach of data protection rules.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves from 10 Downing Street. Picture: Getty Images
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves from 10 Downing Street. Picture: Getty Images

It came as the Tories admitted that there had been “an approach” from Cambridge Analytica, the company at the centre of a growing international controversy over its methods, to work for the party under David Cameron.

At Prime Minister's Questions, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford asked the Prime Minister to confirm links between her party and Cambridge Analytica's parent company, SCL Group.

Mrs May said Facebook and Cambridge Analytica should fully comply with investigations into “very concerning” claims about the harvesting of personal data.

The Prime Minister said she supported a probe by Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, saying “people need to have confidence in how their personal data is being used”.

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“Can I point out that the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, Strategic Communications Laboratories, has been run by a chairman of Oxford Conservative Association, its founding chairman was a former Conservative MP, and a director appears to have donated over £700,000 to the Tory party,” Mr Blackford said.The Prime Minister said that “as far as I am aware” there were no current Government contracts with Cambridge Analytica or SCL.

She said the allegations are “clearly very concerning”, adding: “I would expect Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and all organisations involved to comply fully with the investigation that is taking place.”

A Freedom of Information request in 2016 revealed that SCL was hired to carry out work for the Ministry of Defense on two occasions in 2010/11 and 2014/15. The latter contract was for “procurement of target audience analysis”.

A Number 10 spokesman said the government was working to establish whether any other government departments had worked with the company.

Following PMQs, Mr Blackford said: “Theresa May’s use of the word ‘current’ in her response was telling. We know there have been UK government contracts with SCL. In the public interest, the government have got to treat this as an absolutely priority.

“There’s also the fact that Cambridge Analytica are absolutely joined at the hip with the Conservative Party. Both the Conservative Party and the government have got to come clean.”

Meanwhile, an academic who developed the app to collect data on millions of Facebook users for CA claimed he has been made a “scapegoat” in the row.

Cambridge Analytica has been accused of taking people’s data without proper permission to use in campaigns including Donald Trump’s presidential bid.

The backlash against Facebook over its handling of personal data has seen calls for users to delete their profiles and wiped billions of dollars off the social media giant’s market value.

Cambridge University psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, who developed the app used to gather data, insisted he believed what he was doing was “perfectly legal and within the terms of service” of the social network but admitted he regretted not asking more questions about the work.

He claimed CA approached him to do the work, which resulted in the details of around 30 million Americans being collected, but he did not know how that information was used by the data firm. Dr Kogan developed a personality survey called This Is Your Digital Life.

Crucially, as well as harvesting details of the people who completed the survey it could also access their friends’ information, depending on privacy settings on Facebook.

Dr Kogan told the BBC that around 200,000 people were recruited to do the survey and around 30 million users’ details were collected.

A whistleblower has previously claimed details of more than 50 million people were harvested. Cambridge Analytica has denied using the Facebook data in its work on Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign.

Facebook banned CA from using its platform on Friday and has also blocked Dr Kogan. But the academic told the BBC’s Today programme: “My view is that I’m being basically used as a scapegoat by both Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

“Honestly we thought we were acting perfectly appropriately, we thought we were doing something that was really normal.”

Dr Kogan said: “What happened was, they approached me. In terms of the usage of Facebook data they wrote the terms of service for the app, they provided the legal advice that this was all appropriate.”

But he said “one of the great mistakes I did here was I just didn’t ask enough questions”.

Dr Kogan claimed CA’s suspended chief executive Alexander Nix was wrong when he told MPs he had not been supplied data by the academic’s firm GSR.

Mr Nix told MPs that GSR “did some research for us back in 2014” that “proved to be fruitless”.

Asked if that was wrong, Dr Kogan told Today: “I believe it is. I don’t see why that would be accurate.”

Dr Kogan said he would be prepared to appear before Parliament or the US Congress to give his version of events.