The main political parties in England are engaged in “systemic abuse of personal data”, according to a new legal complaint which alleges they are breaking data protection law.
The complaint, which was filed with the data watchdog on Friday, accuses Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats of misusing the personal data of voters.
It has been filed by three employees and one member of digital rights organisation Open Rights Group, who asked the parties to see the data they held on them before the 2019 general election, a process known as a “subject access request”.
According to the information that was returned:
- The Liberal Democrats used personal data to rate the political preferences of every voter in the country in 42 categories, including which party they were going to vote for and whether they were a Remainer or Leaver.
- The Labour Party used data on age, income and gender to rank every voter in each constituency on key issues, including “austerity”, “inequality” and “immigration” .
- The Conservative Party used similar data to assign voters to groups such as “Cultural Comfort – Thriving Families in multicultural urban communities”.
It also emerged recently that the Conservatives “racially and religiously profiled” 10 million voters by using a tool which analysed people’s names to guess their country of origin, ethnicity, and religion.
The Open Rights Group complaint alleges that the parties conducted “highly intrusive profiling” without telling voters they were doing so – and that they went far beyond what was “necessary”, a key term in data protection law, which states that use of data must be “necessary and proportional”.
Based on its correspondence with the parties following the revelation of the data, Open Rights Group claims that the parties do not acknowledge these legal limits. Instead, it argues, “the parties treat as necessary anything they consider will help them win an election”.
Pascal Crowe, Data and Democracy Project Officer for Open Rights Group and one of the complainants, told Sky News: “There must be limits on how much personal data a political party can gather on each voter. I doubt many people would find it necessary to be racially profiled by the Conservatives. This complaint is designed to limit this kind of creepy and unethical behaviour.”
The complaint has been filed with the Information Commissioner, who is already considering the way parties use personal data.
Ravi Naik, legal director of AWO, who is representing the complainants, said: “This is a basic issue to do with human rights. That might sound very abstract, but in practice it means that people have some power and control over how their information is used against them.”
The complaint calls on the Information Commissioner to ensure that parties have proper processes in place to respond to subject access requests, saying that the responses from the parties arrived far too slowly and in an incomplete form, even though the law requires anyone who holds to respond to a subject access request within one month of receipt.
It does not say that political parties do not have the right to use data, but it asks that the data watchdog issues new guidance to ensure there is “a limit to what a party can do to secure its own political ends”.
Matthew Rice, Scotland Director for Open Rights Group and one of the complainants, said: “One year on from the general election and after months of discussions, we need to see clarity. The parties argue that as long as it helps them win seats, our personal data is fair game. That position is unacceptable. We must see clear and transparent limits to what data profiling a political party can do to voters.
“We are now turning to the Information Commissioner with this question. The answer will be significant for all voters in the United Kingdom.”
Asked to comment on the complaint, all the political parties stressed that they followed data protection law and that they worked collaboratively with the Information Commissioner.
A Conservative spokesman said: “The Conservative Party fully complies with all prevailing electoral, data protection and electronic marketing legislation. The Party has recently assisted the Information Commissioner in its review of political parties’ practices, and we will take on board the constructive feedback from the review.”
A Labour Party spokesperson said: “The Labour Party takes our data protection responsibilities extremely seriously and complies with all relevant legislation.”
The SNP, DUP, Plaid Cymru and UKIP were not a subject of the complaint, which found that they did not source personal data to the same extent as the main political parties in England.
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