Conservative Party ‘illegally collected ethnicity data on 10 million voters’

UK Information Commissioner says information was deleted after her office discovered it

Kate Devlin
Whitehall Editor
Tuesday 26 January 2021 19:45 GMT
<p>The records of 10 million voters were examined</p>

The records of 10 million voters were examined

The Conservative Party acted illegally by collecting ethnicity data on millions of people, the Information Commissioner has told MPs.  

Elizabeth Denham said the information was deleted after her office intervened.  

But she told members of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee: “They did not have the legal basis to collect it ... it was illegal to collect.”  

Before the 2019 general election the party purchased data that estimated a person’s county of origin, ethnic origin and religion based on their first and last name.  

This was applied to the records of 10 million voters.  

Ms Denham said that after the release of her office’s findings last November the data was deleted.  

If it had not been, her office would have ordered it to be destroyed, she added.  

Pressed on the issue by SNP MP John Nicolson, Ms Denham said: “Religion and ethnicity are both – like health information – special category data that requires a higher standard for a legal basis to collect.

’So again, ethnicity is not an acceptable collection of data, there isn’t a legal basis that allows for the collection of that data."

Mr Nicolson later said: “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.”

Jim Killock, executive director of campaigning organisation Open Rights Group, 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 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 stop unlawful profiling practices. That’s their job.”  

Mr Nicolson also said he planned to raise a point of order in the Commons, complaining that culture minister John Whittingdale had specifically told him the party had not broken the law.

During her appearance before the committee, Ms Denham also revealed she does not use Facebook or WhatsApp and said she understood concerns about the trustworthiness of both platforms.

Ms Denham said she did use Signal, one of the apps that has seen a surge in popularity following a recent privacy announcement by WhatsApp, for “personal communications”.

“What's really interesting about the WhatsApp announcement in ongoing sharing with Facebook is how many users voted with their virtual feet and left the platform to take up membership with Telegram or Signal which are end-to-end encrypted,” she said.

“I think it's a bigger issue of trust. Users expect companies to maintain their trust and not to suddenly change the contract that they have with the users and I think it's an example of users being concerned about the trustworthiness and the sustainability of the promises that are made to users,” she added.  

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “The Conservative Party complies with all prevailing electoral, data protection and electronic marketing legislation.

 “The party has assisted the Information Commissioner in its review of political parties’ practices, and have taken on board the constructive feedback from the review.”

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