Conservatives illegally collected ethnicity data from 10m voters

The party's purchase of estimated data sets has led to calls for ICO to prohibit unlawful profiling practices

The Information Commissioner has confirmed that by collecting data regarding the ethnic backgrounds of 10 million voters, the Conservative party broke the law.

Elizabeth Denham addressed the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Tuesday morning to confirm the assessment. "It was illegal to collect the ethnicity data." she said when questioned.

Ms. Denham also claimed that the ICO's instructions to destroy the data were unnecessary, as it had already been voluntarily deleted by the Tory party as per a recommendation from her office.

"Religion and ethnicity are both, like health information, special category data that require a higher standard for a legal basis to collect", said Ms. Denham, in response to a question from SNP MP, John Nicolson. "We made the recommendation that they destroy the data because they didn't have a legal basis to collect it."

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) initially released a report in November 2020 that detailed how each political party had complied with data protection laws. This report found that the Conservatives had purchased data that attempted to estimate the ethnic origin, country of birth and religion of an individual, as well as other details based on first and last names, and that this data had been applied to 10 million people.

To complicate the issue further, Ms. Denham's statement on Tuesday does not align with comments made by John Whittingdale, in December 2020, when discussing data protection in parliament.

"As I recall, the information commissioner examined the practices of all political parties and made comments against all of them." Mr Whittingdale said, regarding the ICO's report. "However, it did not find that any breaches of the law had occurred."

Mr. Nicolson has since requested that Mr. Whittingdale clarify his statement.

"The ethnic and religious profiling of voters by the Conservative Party was always morally and ethically abhorrent. We now know from the Information Commissioner that it was also illegal." said Mr. Nicolson. "I will be writing to him to ask that he withdraw his false claim, acknowledge that the Tories' ethnic profiling was illegal, and undertake not to break the law again."

Similarly, the executive director of Open Rights Group, Jim Killock, has called upon the ICO to define its role in political data collection more astutely.

"Elizabeth Denham finally confirmed the unlawful nature of this profiling by the Conservative party under pressure from MPs on the DCMS committee." he said. "Yet the ICO still has not explained what parties can and can not do. Mass profiling of voters continues, even if this data has been removed. The ICO needs to act to stop unlawful profiling practices. That's their job."

Written by: Hannah Hart

Originally hailing from Wales, Hannah Hart graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with a 1:1 in Creative Writing, going on to work as an Editor across a number of trade magazines. As a professional writer, Hannah has worked across both digital and print media, and is familiar with collating news pieces, in depth reports and producing by lines for international publications. Otherwise, she can be found pouring over a tarot deck or spending more hours than she'll ever admit playing Final Fantasy 14.

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