In a wide-ranging interim report entitled “Disinformation and ‘fake news’” published today, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, which is composed of MPs from all parties, warns of the threat posed to our democracy and values by the "relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans” and identifies “the crisis concerning the use of data” as lying at the heart of these problems.
The report emphasises how the public have only recently become aware of the extent to which their personal information may now unwittingly be in the public domain and how this data can then used for entirely different purposes without their knowledge or consent. Particularly, how personal information can be analysed for political purposes by allowing psychological profiles of voters to be developed and then for people to be targeted based on their particular profiles (a practice known as data analytics).
The report examines the roles of organisations such as Facebook and Cambridge Analytica in the misuse of data, with the personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users, including over 1 million users in the UK, being acquired by Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company now in administration, involved, with its associated companies, in recent US and UK elections.
The report finds “serious failings” with Facebook’s holding of its users’ personal data and refers to the Information Commissioner’s Office’s intention to fine the company “for lack of transparency and security issues relating to the harvesting of data constituting breaches of the first and seventh data protection principles [of the Data Protection Act 1998]”.
The report is also critical of the unwillingness of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s Chief Executive, to give evidence to the Committee, as well as Facebook’s general lack of assistance when stating "Facebook has hampered our efforts to get information about their company throughout this inquiry. It is as if it thinks that the problem will go away if it does not share information about the problem, and reacts only when it is pressed" and, in relation to the evidence provided by Facebook’s chief technology officer "It provided witnesses who have been unwilling or unable to give full answers to the committee's questions."
The report also expresses concern that, despite suspending Cambridge Analytica for its alleged data harvesting over four months ago, Facebook has very recently suspended another company, Crimson Hexagon, which has links with the US Government and Kremlin-connected Russian organisations, for allegedly carrying out the same offence.
The report also refers to the Information Commissioner’s Office’s ongoing investigation into “extremely serious allegations” that Leave.EU obtained data used during the Brexit Referendum from insurance data from Eldon Insurance Services Ltd, a company owned by Arron Banks, a co-founder of the Leave.EU campaign, and that centre staff at Eldon made calls on behalf of Leave.EU.
The report’s recommendations include the need for a code of ethics for tech companies such as Facebook as well as a full auditing of their security measures. The report also identifies the need for measures to combat election interference, including rules on political campaigning needing to be made fit for the digital age. It recommends a ban on micro-targeted political advertising to similar audiences. It further identifies the need for the Electoral Commission to be given the power to impose substantially higher fines than the existing £20,000 for breaches of electoral law.
Specialist privacy lawyer at Leigh Day, Sean Humber, said: “This highly damning report lays bare the extent of the misuse of people’s personal information for political purposes and the corrosive effect this is having on our democracy.
“At the core has been Facebook’s failure to operate in a transparent way and keep over a million UK users’ information safe. Those affected are now only slowly becoming aware of how their information may have been subsequently misused for political purposes.
“Affected Facebook are entitled to know far more about what was done with their personal information as well as compensation for its misuse.
“Similarly, Eldon Insurance Services Ltd customers are entitled to know whether their personal information was used by Leave.EU during the Brexit Referendum. If it turns out that their information was used for political purposes, this would almost certainly be unlawful and affected customers would be entitled to compensation for the data breach.”