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.”

openDemocracy put similar questions to the Liberal Democrats. At the time of publication no formal reply had been received.

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.

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