Government to toughen data protection laws in response to Facebook scandal

Culture Secretary Matt Hancock announced he is poised to agree to new powers being demanded by the data protection watchdog.

In a speech to journalists and MPs at Westminster, Mr Hancock declared the events of the past week marked a “turning point” in public attitudes.

He also revealed he had spoken to the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, about the scandal and was ready to back her data protection demands.

The emergency measures will be added to the Government’s Data Protection Bill, currently in its committee stage in the House of Commons after passing through the House of Lords, and are likely to receive all-party support.

The two key measures to be added to the bill will be:

:: The right to gain access to social media companies without giving notice, bringing the Commissioner’s powers into line with other enforcement agencies

:: The right to obtain testimony from individuals as well as organisations, so the Commissioner can interrogate companies’ former employees

Ms Denham has complained to the Government that she is still waiting for a court warrant to be granted in order to raid and search the London offices of Cambridge Analytica, as part of her investigation into the firm’s use of data.

The company is accused of election meddling and obtaining the personal data of 50 million Americans from social media giant Facebook without their consent.

Coinciding with Mr Hancock’s announcement, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee of MPs announced it has recalled Alexander Nix, the suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica, to a further hearing as part of its “Fake News” inquiry.

Mr Nix previously gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry three weeks ago, but following damning newspaper and TV reports about Cambridge Analytica, he has been called back for further questioning.

Answering questions from journalists, Mr Hancock said: “After this week’s revelations, I think it is time that social media platforms come clean with what data they really hold on people.”

He added: “I have actually been worrying for quite some time about this sort of problem.

“We didn’t know the details of the revelations that came out at the weekend but the Information Commissioner already had an investigation to get to the bottom of these sorts of problems.

“It is clear to me that the rules need to be strengthened to make sure that she has the enforcement powers that we need.”

Mr Hancock, who has faced privacy concerns as well as ridicule over his own social media app for constituents, said the Data Protection Bill would strengthen the rules.

“I think this week has marked a turning point in people’s attitude towards the big platforms,” he said.

“You can’t just let the companies decide what is the balance between privacy and use of data and innovation. That is a decision for society, reflected in the laws that we pass here.”

Asked about Facebook customers deleting their accounts in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Mr Hancock said: “Of course I understand why people are deleting Facebook accounts.

“Without trust people will understandably continue to remove their Facebook accounts and without transparency over how data is used there can be no trust.”

The DCMS committee has given Mr Nix until next Tuesday to respond to its demand for him to return to give evidence a second time.

In a letter to Mr Nix, committee chairman Damian Collins said there were “a number of inconsistencies” in the evidence he gave on 27 February.

These were:

:: His denial that Cambridge Analytica received data from the Global Science Research company

:: His claim that Cambridge Analytica did not work with Facebook data and did not have Facebook data

Mr Collins wrote: “You agreed at the 27 February session to send a series of further follow-up answers; we have not received these.

“We call on you to answer them now. Giving false statements to a select committee is a very serious matter.”

Breaking his silence on the scandal, Facebook’s boss Mark Zuckerberg has said it was a mistake to rely on Cambridge Analytica to delete the data of tens of millions of users, apologised for a “major breach of trust”, and said he is open to appearing before MPs.

In response to the ongoing allegations against it, Cambridge Analytica tweeted out what it described as a “timeline” of “what happened when”.

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