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Conservatives broke data law to racially profile millions

The Conservative Party acted illegally in collecting data that inferred voters’ ethnicity and religious background, a Select Committee has heard

The Conservative Party did act illegally in its collection of data relating to the ethnicity and religion of British voters, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee on Online Harms and Regulation has heard.

An Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) report, published in November 2020, revealed that the Conservatives bought onomastic data – a term that refers to information derived from the study of someone’s name – that identified a person’s country of origin, ethnic origin and religion based on that data and appended it to the records of 10 million voters.

Speaking to the Select Committee, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham said the Conservatives had deleted the data as a response to its recommendation – and she would have ordered them to do so if they had not.

At the time, data minister John Whittingdale claimed in response to questions raised by the SNP’s John Nicolson that the party had not acted illegally, but under questioning from Nicolson, Denham contradicted this, although she stopped short of saying Whittingdale had lied to the House.

“Religion and ethnicity are both like health information – special category data that requires a higher standard for legal basis to collect,” said Denham. “Ethnicity is not an acceptable collection of data – there isn’t a legal basis that allows for the collection of that data.”

Pressed further by Nicolson, Denham said: “It was illegal to collect the ethnicity data.”

Nicolson commented: “The ethnic and religious profiling of voters by the Tories was always morally and ethically abhorrent. We now know from the information commissioner that it was illegal. Why, then, did John Whittingdale tell me on the floor of the Commons that his party had not broken the law?”

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group (ORG), said: “The Conservative Party’s racial profiling of voters was illegal. Elizabeth Denham finally confirmed the unlawful nature of this profiling by the Conservative Party under pressure from MPs on the DCMS Select Committee.

“Yet the ICO still has not explained what parties can and cannot do. Mass profiling of voters continues, even if this data has been removed. The ICO needs to act and stop unlawful profiling practices. That’s their job.” 

Late in 2020, the ORG submitted complaints to the ICO on behalf of a number of data subjects about the processing of personal data by both the Conservatives and Labour, as well as the Unionist Party and the Liberal Democrats.

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ProPrivacy’s Aaron Drapkin said: “Using data to racially profile voters in this way is illegal – and, strangely, the ICO’s summary report from November seems to recognise this without actually condemning the Conservatives for it.

“It is surprising the ICO has taken so long to condemn the action as illegal and, sadly, such a statement has only materialised under pressure from a Select Committee. In terms of moving forward, worryingly, there doesn’t seem to be much guidance on what parties can and can’t do.

“This is 10 million voters we’re talking about – more than one-fifth of the electorate – and the Conservatives should face the consequences, or a terrible precedent will be set. If the ICO doesn’t enforce the rules, then who else will?”

Drapkin added that if some of the Conservatives’ public election tactics in 2019 were considered – such as rebranding their official Twitter account as a fact-checking page during a televised debate in a deliberate attempt to mislead voters – it was not surprising that their behind-the-scenes strategy was “equally insidious”.

The Tories also manipulated video of an appearance by the then shadow Brexit secretary, now Labour leader Keir Starmer, on Good Morning Britain to make it appear as if he was unable to give a straight answer.

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