Malaysia says never hired British data firm at center of scrutiny

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The Malaysian government and the ruling party on Tuesday denied they had ever hired Cambridge Analytica, the British data analytics firm accused of improperly harvesting personal data from millions of Facebook users.

People walk past the building housing the offices of Cambridge Analytica in central London, Britain, March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

The New York Times and the British Observer reported that Cambridge Analytica had acquired private data harvested from more than 50 million Facebook users to support Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign.

In a secretly recorded video by Britain’s Channel 4 News, Cambridge Analytica officials were also recorded saying they have used a web of shell companies to disguise their activities in elections in Malaysia, Mexico and Brazil, among various countries where they have worked to sway election outcomes.

“Contrary to media reports, neither Cambridge Analytica nor its parent company SCL Group have ever – now or in the past – been contracted, employed or paid in any way by Barisan Nasional, the Prime Minister’s Office or any part of the Government of Malaysia,” the office of Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak said on Tuesday. Barisan Nasional (BN) is Malaysia’s ruling coalition.

SCL and Cambridge Analytica did not respond to requests by Reuters for comment regarding their work in Malaysia. Cambridge Analytica had earlier denied all the media claims and said it deleted the data after learning the information did not adhere to data-protection rules.

Malaysia is gearing up for national elections that have to be called by August, with sources telling Reuters that polls may be held as early as April. Najib’s coalition is widely expected to retain power.

Najib’s office also said SCL has informed the government that “Cambridge Analytica’s advice on the 2013 general election was provided personally to Mukhriz Mahathir,” who was then with the ruling coalition but is now part of the opposition.

“The SCL representative also confirmed that he reported directly to Mukhriz Mahathir, not BN or the government,” Najib’s office said.

Mukhriz told Reuters that the statement by PMO was misleading.

“I categorically deny any contact with Cambridge Analytica at any time,” he said. Earlier in the day, he denied receiving any analysis, data or advice from the firm.

Mukhriz is the son of the former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad, who is now the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate.

According to Cambridge Analytica’s website, the firm “supported Barisan Nasional in Kedah state with a targeted messaging campaign highlighting their school improvements since 2008.” It also notes how BN wrested power back from the opposition in the 2013 elections.

Mukhriz was appointed chief minister of Kedah after the 2013 win, but he was sacked by the ruling party in 2016 after being critical of Najib in a corruption scandal.

Reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi and Praveen Menon, editing by Larry King