Britain’s Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she was seeking a court warrant to access information held on storage systems by consultancy Cambridge Analytica following allegations that Facebook user data had been illegally exploited.
The announcement of the move to force access to the firm came amid a firestorm of revelations about the political consultancy work it had been engaged in, including admissions by the management that it used bribes and prostitutes to entrap political targets.
The commissioner said she was investigating possible breaches of privacy in the company’s use of Facebook data.
Her announcement late on Monday came as a British documentary aired showing Alexander Nix, the company's chief executive, telling undercover reporters the firm could use a range of covert techniques to target opponents of campaigns it was engaged in. Among other boasts, he said the company could "send some girls around to the candidate's house" and added that Ukrainian girls "are very beautiful, I find that works very well".
He also suggested attempting to blackmail individuals with bribery allegations. He told the reporter, who had posed as an aide for a Sri Lankan politician, that they could “offer them a deal that's too good to be true and make sure that's video recorded".
Mr Nix and another senior company figure boasted to the reporter of their firm’s activities in Kenya, Malaysia and their relations with figures from the UK intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6, whom they could use to “find all the skeletons” of a political opponent.
The footage was aired on Monday night despite legal threats to Channel 4 by Cambridge Analytica.
Later that night, Mr Nix told The Times he was willing to resign if it might save the company. "If that is going to help the company that is the right thing to happen. There are 150 young people whose future is on the line. This is profoundly upsetting."
He said it was “a decision for the board”.
The allegations come just days after a report in The Observer in which whistleblower Christopher Wylie said the firm had harvested the data of more than 50 million Facebook users thorough "personality tests". Mr Wylie told newspaper: "We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people's profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis that the entire company was built on." He claimed this information had been provided to the Trump campaign.
Facebook confirmed that auditors and legal counsel acting on its behalf had entered Cambridge Analytica's London offices on Monday, though the firm later stood down after it was instructed to do so by Mrs Denham.
The activities of both companies have been called into question by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
In response to the allegations, Damian Collins, chair of parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, announced he had written to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, calling on him to give evidence to the committee. On Sunday, Mr Collins suggested that Mr Nix had "deliberately misled" parliament by "giving false statements" when he appeared before the committee last month.
Mr Nix had denied that Cambridge Analytica had any involvement in the Brexit referendum. “So however you look at this, or however it appears to you, or whatever tweets other people have said about this situation, we did no paid or unpaid work, we had no formalised relationship with [Leave.eu], we did not work on the EU referendum with that organisation or any other organisation.”
However, while the hearing was still in progress, Brexit campaigner Aaron Banks tweeted “CA [Cambridge Analytica] wanted a fee of £1m to start work & then said they would raise £6m in the states. We declined the offer because it was illegal.”
Mr Nix denied he had misled the committee. “Everything I said to Damian Collins was absolutely correct, I did not tell one fib.”
Ron Wyden, a senior US senator on the committee investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election, also wrote to Mr Zuckerberg, asking him to come clean about what the company knew regarding the misuse of its data. Mr Wyden’s letter said recent reports raised questions about Facebook’s handling of personal information. It said there were "serious concerns about the role Facebook played in facilitating and permiting the covert collection and misuse of consumer informations".