Canada's privacy watchdog launches investigation into Facebook after allegations of data leak

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Canada’s privacy watchdog has launched an investigation into Facebook after a series of media reports alleged that private online information belonging to millions of Americans was obtained by a company working on U.S. President Donald Trump’s election campaign.

“We have received a complaint against Facebook in relation to allegations involving Cambridge Analytica and have therefore opened a formal investigation,” Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien said in a statement.

“The first step will be to confirm with the company whether the personal information of Facebook users in Canada was affected.”

The investigation will look at whether Facebook has complied with the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), Canada’s federal private sector privacy law.

This weekend, The New York Times and the British newspaper The Observer reported that Trump’s 2016 campaign hired Cambridge Analytica, and that the company harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users to help conduct the digital campaign.

In a blog post, Facebook said that, while none of the information leakage was a result of a data breach, it did appear to involve the passing of personal information from Cambridge Analytica to a third party when that data was supposed to have been destroyed.

Britain Facebook Cambridge

Chief Executive of Cambridge Analytica Alexander Nix leaves the offices in central London, Tuesday March 20, 2018. Cambridge Analytica has suspended Nix following the release of recordings showing him discussing political ‘dirty tricks’ with an undercover reporter. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via Associated Press)

“Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted. We are moving aggressively to determine the accuracy of these claims. If true, this is another unacceptable violation of trust and the commitments they made,” said the social media company’s vice-president and deputy general counsel Paul Grewal.

NDP asks for investigation

Therrien said in the statement that the U.K.’s own privacy watchdog is carrying on a similar investigation and the two agencies would remain in touch.

“We will remain in contact with the U.K. office and will work with other data protection authorities as appropriate. Ultimately, our goal is to ensure that the privacy rights of Canadian Facebook users are protected,” he said.

Therrien launched his investigation a day after NDP MPs Charlie Angus, Matthew Dubé and Brian Masse wrote to him asking the commissioner to look into whether the private data of Canadians using social media is safe.

“Over the weekend, the troubling news emerged that Cambridge Analytica, a firm owned by hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and linked to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, was able to access tens of millions of Facebook users’ private data without their consent for use in psychographic modelling for political purposes,” the letter said.

Privacy laws need strengthening: Therrien 

Acting Democratic Institutions Minister Scott Brison said that he has already asked the Communications Security Establishment and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to look into whether the private data of Canadians is safe.

Brison also said that while Canada has strong privacy laws, he would be willing to consider changes to strengthen them.

Speaking on CBC News Network’s Power & Politics Tuesday, Brison said he has spoken with Facebook already and has told the social media giant that Canada needs answers.

“We need to know whether the private information, the personal information of Canadian citizens has been compromised,” he told guest host David Common. “Facebook assured me they would be responding to that and providing me with those answers.”

In his statement, the privacy watchdog expressed a concern that Canada’s Privacy Act does not apply to political parties in Canada, noting that he has asked Parliament to consider expanding the law.

“If true, the allegations raise a major challenge for privacy rights. We have recommended strengthening Canada’s private sector law in order to help strengthen consumer trust. I welcome the support of a Parliamentary committee that recently reviewed PIPEDA,” Therrien said.

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