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Voter Data is Being Trawled by Conservative Politicians – Help Us Shine a Light On It

Help Byline Times follow the dark money and track the dirty data as millions are spent on online political campaigning this election year

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Multiple Conservative politicians and candidates have now been accused of deceptively harvesting voters’ personal data through surveys and petitions. That data – seemingly obtained in a misleading way – could be used for campaigning purposes at upcoming elections. 

Just under a month out from London’s local elections, mayoral candidate Susan Hall was accused of distributing leaflets containing false claims about her political opponent Sadiq Khan intended to collect personal data on London voters – without properly mentioning her campaign or even the full name of the Conservative party (just writing CCHQ in small print, a term not often used outside of Westminster). 

More instances of alleged data-trawling have now come to light. 

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Chris Loder, Conservative MP for West Dorset, sent constituents a leaflet on House of Commons notepaper in late March ostensibly surveying residents on a proposed development. In order to complete the form, West Dorset constituents were prompted to share personal details and grant Chris Loder – and his “party affiliates” – permission to contact them again about both that development “and other issues”. 

Tom Tugendhat MP has recently launched and promoted via email a new reporting service for litter, graffiti, and fly-tipping in his constituency of Tonbridge and Malling. Against standard protocol for reporting environmental issues, Tugendhat’s webform requires inputting personal contact details and urges constituents to let the MP “keep in touch about the work I’m doing on your behalf”. 

A survey on transport connectivity sent out in Hunmanby and Sherburn under the name of Kevin Hollinrake MP and North Yorkshire mayoral candidate Keane Duncan also appears to solicit personal contact information and implores respondents to allow direct contact from the Conservative party. 


Data Trawling

Questions are now arising as to whether these are separate incidents or a concerted data-trawling effort by the Conservatives.

The GDPR is clear that consent to share personal data should be “freely given”, and bundling consent in seemingly apolitical constituency surveys and petitions could be viewed as intentionally deceptive should the data be used for campaigning purposes. 

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has stated that “if a candidate or party asks you to complete a survey, they should be clear how they’ll use that data in future. In many cases, it won’t be appropriate for them to then repurpose that information for political campaigning.” It’s still uncertain whether the ICO will be investigating any of the alleged data-trawling incidents mentioned above. 

Voter data-trawling like this is not necessarily new, but as collection and targeting techniques grow more sophisticated, adequate regulation and oversight are still largely absent.

The UK’s Online Safety Bill only exacerbated data privacy issues, and recent changes to electoral law make the Electoral Commission less poised than ever before to tackle dodgy data. More concerning still, party spending limits have now nearly doubled, and digital campaigning is likely to remain the focus of financial spend in upcoming elections. 

In 2021, largely in response to the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, digital rights campaigners at Fair Vote UK and the All-Party-Parliamentary-Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency published a consultation-based report on Defending Our Democracy in the Digital Age,” calling for twenty significant changes to electoral law as it relates to data, ad-targeting and dark money.

Byline Times needs your help to investigate disinformation and electoral exclusion as we head towards the 2024 General Election.

We’re asking for your help to keep track of dodgy campaigning this election, so if you spot anything that bears investigation, please email us at votewatch24@bylinetimes.com.

In the three years since the report’s publication, only one of those recommendations – to require digital imprints on political ads (#8) – has been partially met. 

Then-chair of the APPG Stephen Kinnock remarked in the report’s foreword that data-harvesting and voter targeting lead to an “erosion of trust [which] will in time further damage the integrity of our democracy, possibly beyond repair.” Kinnock warned of a “tsunami of dirty money and dodgy data smash[ing] through our flimsy defences.”

With those defences yet to be bolstered, Byline Times is looking to shine a light on cases of data harvesting and misuse ahead of upcoming elections wherever we can.

If you can point us towards more incidents like those mentioned in this article, please send them in to Votewatch24@bylinetimes.com


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