Dark Money Investigations: Investigation

New evidence that LibDems sold voter data for £100,000 held back till after election

UK’s data watchdog has documents to show the Liberal Democrats had a lucrative commercial deal with the Remain campaign to sell voter data. Why should the electorate not know the full story before 12 December?

James Cusick
James Cusick
13 November 2019
Liberal Democrats leader Jo Swinson makes a speech at a rally at the Battersea Arts Centre in Lavender Hill
Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA Images

New evidence which confirms that the Liberal Democrats sold voter data to the Remain campaign in 2016 for almost £100,000 is being withheld from public scrutiny by the UK's information watchdog, openDemocracy has learned.

A report in 2018 by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said it had obtained evidence that the Liberal Democrats sold the personal data of its party members to the Britain Stronger In Europe (BSiE) campaign ahead of the Brexit referendum. The party insisted it only shared publicly available electoral register data that had been “enhanced”, but not private membership information.

openDemocracy has seen the evidence held by the ICO for over a year. In official Liberal Democrat documents that have been examined and validated by the data watchdog, the 2016 income of the party specifically identifies both “data services sale” and “data services fees” worth almost £100,000 which occurred during the lengthy EU referendum campaign.

The Liberal Democrats strongly reject any allegation of wrongdoing, and maintain that the party has acted in accordance with electoral law at all times.

Public responsibility

The ICO told openDemocracy it will not publish or comment on any updated details of its investigation into the collection and sharing of personal data by the official Remain campaign, because of its “responsibilities” as a public body in the run-up to the general election on 12 December.

Commenting on the ICO’s decision, Pascal Crowe of the Open Rights Group, which campaigns for privacy online, said: “We are concerned by the lack of clarity over what data has been bought and sold. If this is party membership data, voter files, or other forms of personal data, this could be in breach of data protection laws.”

The group added that all political parties should be more transparent about their use of personal data, warning: “The public have a right to know how their information is being traded and graded. Those involved here should come clean about what has been sold.”

The data watchdog is the latest organisation to state that politically critical information will be withheld from voters until after December’s poll, following the government’s refusal to publish a report into Russian interference in British politics.

Those involved here should come clean about what has been sold.

Pascal Crowe, Open Rights Group

The ICO’s initial report on political campaigns was published last year. Its aim was to uncover the “use of data analytics for political purposes” following allegations that centred on the “invisible processing of voters personal data and the micro-targeting of political adverts” which had taken place during the EU referendum.

At the time, the ICO’s work – which took over a year – was the largest investigation of its type by a data protection authority. A number of EU referendum campaigns featured in the report. The ICO fined Arron Banks’s pro-Brexit Leave.EU campaign and his insurance company a combined £120,000. Vote Leave, the official campaign, was fined £40,000.

In the report, the watchdog said that it had also “obtained information” that the Liberal Democrats had “sold the personal data of its party members” to the Britain is Stronger in Europe for approximately £100,000”. At the time of the sale the LibDem leader was Tim Farron. Vince Cable took over as leader in July 2017, leaving in July this year.

Sale denied

When contacted by the ICO, the Liberal Democrats and the successor organisation to BSiE, Open Britain, both denied that party members’ data had been sold. The ICO said it would continue its investigation and consider whether breaches of data protection had taken place.

An update of its 2018 report had been expected to be published in the autumn of this year. The general election effectively means nothing from the ICO will be seen till spring next year at the earliest.

However the evidence seen by openDemocracy throws new light on the sale of data from the LibDems to the Remain campaign.

The income from the sale is spread throughout 2016 in payments of £48,725, £38,950, £2,500 and £9,745. The total is £99,920.

The date when the commercial deal was fixed is identified as February 2016. Senior party officials involved were said to have described the total value of the arrangement as the equivalent of “hitting a jackpot”.

Although there was some unease voiced by those involved about the appropriateness of selling voter data, those leading the deal in the party assured them that nothing untoward had taken place and that the money, urgently needed to boost party coffers, would be well used.

“Simple enhancement”

The LibDems told the ICO’s initial investigation team that there had been a deal involving data collected by the party. A statement claimed they had merely “worked with” a campaign group to use “subsets” of the electoral register. It said a “simple enhancement service” had been carried out, such as adding phone numbers.

Both the LibDems and Open Britain denied that “party members’ personal data had been sold”.

The party told the ICO that its relationship with Stronger in Europe aimed to “model electoral roll data, with a view to highlighting potential voting intentions”.

Following the 2018 ICO report, the LibDems publicly stated they had sought guidance from the Electoral Commission over the arrangement.

Although the ICO said over a year ago that it would continue to look at how the Remain side of the referendum handled personal data, it has issued no update of its work.

Initial concern among investigators at the data watchdog is thought to have focused on how a deal worth £100,000 can account for the “simple enhancement” of publicly available information.

Worry over canvassing information

Further work by the ICO is believed to have examined the issue of whether or not canvassing data was involved in the deal and whether or not party canvassers had informed those they questioned that their information could be passed on to a third party.

openDemocracy asked the ICO how its investigation was progressing, what conclusions had been reached on the sale of voters’ data, and what, if any, action would be taken against the Liberal Democrats.

An ICO spokesman said: “As an non-departmental public body the ICO has to consider its responsibilities during the election period. Our regulatory work continues as usual but we will not be commenting on issues in the run up to the general election.”

The ICO is the latest organisation to state that the election’s timing has halted publication of politically sensitive material.

The Crown Prosecution Service currently holds evidence on the official Leave campaign – led by the incumbent prime minister, Boris Johnson and his Downing Street aide, Dominic Cummings – which could lead to criminal charges being brought against the group. Downing Street itself is blocking a potentially incendiary report into Russian influence in UK politics following an investigation by the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee of MPs.

Update: This article was amended on 23rd November 2019 to state that the LibDems strongly reject any allegation of wrongdoing, and maintain they have acted in accordance with electoral law.

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