Cambridge Analytica’s ex-CEO backs out of giving evidence to UK parliament

Alexander Nix, the former CEO of the political consultancy firm at the center of a storm about mishandled Facebook users data, has backed out of re-appearing in front of the UK parliament for a second time.

Nix had been scheduled to take questions from the DCMS committee that’s probing online misinformation tomorrow afternoon.

In a press notice today, the committee said: “The former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, is now refusing to appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee at a public session tomorrow, Wednesday 18th April, at 2.15pm. He cites the Information Commissioner’s Office’s ongoing investigation as a reason not to appear.”

Nix has already given evidence to the committee — in February — but last month it recalled him, saying it has fresh questions for him in light of revelations that millions of Facebook users had their data passed to CA in violation of Facebook’s policies.

It has also said it’s keen to press him on some of his previous answers, as a result of evidence it has heard since — including detailed testimony from CA whistleblower Chris Wylie late last month.

In a statement today about Nix’s refusal to appear, committee chair Damian Collins said it might issue a formal summons.

“We do not accept Mr Nix’s reason for not appearing in a public session before the Committee. We have taken advice and he is not been charged with any criminal offence and there is no active legal proceedings and we plan to raise this with the Information Commissioner when we meet her this week. There is therefore no legal reason why Mr Nix cannot appear,” he said.

“The Committee is minded to issue a formal summons for him to appear on a named day in the very near future. We’ll make a further statement about this next week.”

When Nix attending the hearing on February 27 he claimed Cambridge Analytica does not “work with Facebook data”, also telling the committee: “We do not have Facebook data”, though he said the company uses the social media platform to advertise, and also “as a means to gather data, adding: “We roll out surveys on Facebook that the public can engage with if they elect to.”

Since then Facebook has said information on as many as 87 million users of its platform could have been passed to CA, via a quiz app that was able to exploit its friends API to pull data on Facebook users’ friends.

The Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has also been asked to give evidence to the committee — but has declined repeat requests to appear.

Today the committee heard from a former CA director, Brittany Kaiser, who suggested CA had in fact been able to obtain information on far more than 87M Facebook users — by the use of a series of additional quiz apps designed to be deployed on Facebook’s platform.

She claimed viral tactics were used to harvest Facebookers’ data, naming two additional survey apps it had deployed on Facebook’s platform as a ‘sex compass’ app and a music quiz app claiming to determine your personality. She said she believed the point of the quizzes was to harvest Facebook user data.

Facebook finally suspended Cambridge Analytica from its platform last month — although the company has admitted it was made aware of the allegations linking it with a quiz app that harvested Facebook users data since at least December 2015, when the Guardian published its first article on the story.

Last month the UK’s data protection agency obtained a warrant to enter and search the offices of Cambridge Analytica — as part of an ongoing investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes which it kicked off in May 2017.

The information commissioner said the warrant had been necessary as CA failed to meet an earlier deadline to hand over information that it had requested.

Meanwhile Nix himself was suspended as CEO by CA last month, following a Channel 4 News investigation broadcast video footage of Nix talking to an undercover reporter and appearing to suggest the firm uses a range of dubious tactics, including front companies and subcontractors to secretly engage in political campaigns.

In a statement at the time, CA said the secretly recorded comments — and “other allegations” — “do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation”.

It’s since been reported that Julian Wheatland, the chair of the company’s UK counterpart, SCL Group, will be taking over as CA CEO — though this has not yet been publicly confirmed. Though it has said that the acting CEO, Dr Alexander Taylor, who took over from Nix last month has returned to his former role as chief data officer.