Revealed: Brexit campaigner obtained millions of voters’ data
By Peter Geoghegan and Jenna Corderoy – openDemocracyUK: A prominent Brexit campaigner obtained personal information about millions of British voters, an investigation by openDemocracy has discovered.
A data analytics company owned by ex-Vote Leave staffer Thomas Borwick, who is also linked to Cambridge Analytica, requested and obtained the electoral roll from more than 200 local authorities across Britain. The spreadsheets include names, addresses and other details for every registered voter. In at least one area, Borwick also requested the location of polling stations ahead of the 2015 general election.
Under UK election law, registered ‘third party’ or ‘non party’ campaigners can legally ask for copies of local electoral rolls. Thomas Borwick’s company, Voter Consultancy Ltd (VCL), made by far the most requests for the electoral roll in 2016 and 2017, according to new data released to openDemocracy following a series of Freedom of Information requests. VCL also made requests for the electoral roll in 2014 and 2015, openDemocracy discovered.
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Voter Consultancy is one of around 30 organisations included in the UK Information Commissioner’s ongoing investigation into the use of data during the Brexit campaign. Another data analytics company run by Borwick, Kanto, produced an election app that was used by Cambridge Analytica.
Kanto is currently working with anti-abortion activists in Ireland ahead of Friday’s referendum. A separate openDemocracy investigation published today has found that other Irish anti-abortion campaigners acquired the electoral rollin a number of Irish counties.
Data experts and voting reform campaigners have questioned why British political groups should have access to so much personal information about individual voters, warning that these details could potentially be used alongside data from social media and other sources for targeted online political advertising.
Gavin Sheridan director of transparency advocacy group Right to Know said: “You would wonder what the purpose is, from a data standpoint. One could presume there would be attempts to match voter roll data – names and addresses of registered voters – to their respective social media profiles. This may assist a campaign in further targeting messages to distinct geographies, physical addresses, and digital personas.”
Thomas Borwick told openDemocracy that Voter Consultancy obtained the electoral roll for hundreds of councils solely for the purpose of checking the legitimacy of donations. “Voter Consultancy Limited was using the data which it is entitled to and legally required to do which is to ensure that all donations were permissible under electoral law,” he said.
However, Borwick refused to confirm whether Voter Consultancy Limited had ever received any donations and data from the Electoral Commission shows no records of the company declaring any donations or spending.
‘We do not discuss our clients’
Thomas Borwick, 30, has a lengthy political CV. He is the director of several data analytics firms and was chief technology officer for Vote Leave. His mother, Victoria, was Conservative MP for Kensington before losing her seat in the 2017 general election.
In 2013, Borwick established Voter Consultancy. The company’s website states that it may collect, store and use personal data, which it defined as “information you provide or your council provides that enables you to partake in the campaign and includes your name, address, email address and postcode… This includes where you might “follow”, “like” or otherwise link your social media accounts to a campaign via a third-party website.”
During the Brexit referendum, Voter Consultancy was registered as a third party. Third party – or ‘non-party campaigners’ – are individuals or organisations that campaign in the run-up to elections, but are not standing as political parties or candidates. Third party campaigners can raise funds and spend money and, like all British political campaigns, they must ensure all donors are on the electoral roll. While political parties have access to the electoral roll, third parties have to request local rolls to check if a donation is permissible, according to the Electoral Commission.
Between 2015 and 2017, Voter Consultancy asked for electoral data from more than half of the 353 councils in England as well as from local authorities in Scotland and Wales. The councils were spread across the country, from Aberdeen to Bradford, Caerphilly to Hull, and Gloucester to Windsor. The data would have included information about millions of voters.
On 15 June 2016, a week before the EU referendum, Voter Consultancy sent requests for the electoral roll to at least 25 English councils. The company asked Ealing Council for a “full register of electors and absent voters list following the final verification of the voters’ roll in advance of the EU Referendum.” According to the email, Voter Consultancy required up to date data as “accurate as practically possible.”
Emails obtained by openDemocracy also show that Voter Consultancy had been requesting electoral information from London councils as early as 2014. In December 2014, Lewisham Council’s electoral services received an email from Voter Consultancy requesting the 2015 electoral register, as well as the overseas voter list, the postal voter list, a street list, and “where available we would also like a list of where you will have polling stations for May 2015”.
Voter Consultancy also asked for “the data to be presented in the following way: Roll number, Roll number suffix, Electoral Status, First name, Last Name, Middle initial, Address Lines 1-8 Postcode, and UPRN (unique property identifier if available) and person ID’s (if available).”
Borwick told openDemocracy that Voter Consultancy collected this voter information solely for the purpose of checking the legitimacy of donations. “It is used for the purpose of donations and that is all”, he said.
Borwick refused to confirm whether Voter Consultancy had actually received any donations. “We do not discuss our clients,” he said. Electoral Commission records show that the organisation has never declared receipt of any donations, nor the spending of any money, during an election or referendum campaign.
Non-party campaigners are only required to ensure donors are on the electoral register during the controlled periods immediately before elections and referendums. Voter Consultancy repeatedly accessed the data outside these periods.
Voter Consultancy filed dormant accounts in 2015 and 2016, according to records at Companies House. The company’s third party registration lapsed last year. “There are a lot of projects that I have started that haven’t got off the ground,” Borwick told openDemocracy.
While checking donor permissibility is “a legitimate reason” for holding electoral rolls, Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University, said that he “would have expected more of a justification than simply checking donors. You don’t need the electoral register for hundreds of local authorities to do that when you are unlikely to receive many donations.”
Borwick did not respond to queries about why the electoral roll was requested in a CSV file format but said that the data from electoral rolls was stored electronically and destroyed after a year. “We keep all our data entirely separated and segregated,” he said.
Brexit controversy, Cambridge Analytica – and Ireland’s abortion referendum
Borwick told openDemocracy that the company sent dozens of requests for electoral data in the weeks leading up to the Brexit vote because he wanted to ensure that the company had a record of new voters who might have registered in advance of the EU referendum.
Voter Consultancy made the headlines last November, when a series of Facebook adverts paid for by the company accused several MPs of “trying to sabotage Brexit” and urged voters to contact them directly to complain. At the time, pro-EU MP Anna Soubry said Borwick, who owns the company, “hasn’t issued death threats, but by calling us anti-democratic, he is stoking and fuelling the fire.”
Before he began working for Vote Leave, another Borwick company, Kanto, had a service agreement to provide election software to SCL Elections, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, which was shut down earlier this month following revelations about its exploitation of Facebook data during the Trump election and involvement in disputed elections in Kenya, Nigeria and elsewhere.
According to a 2015 New Scientist article, Kanto developed an app to help canvassers record voters’ interests. Borwick told the magazine how “In a perfect system you have the right person knock on the right door, who has something in common with the voter, can engage them in a conversation and make sure they go to the polling station.”
In October 2017, Borwick established Disruptive Communications Ltd with former Conservative and UKIP MP Douglas Carswell. According to its website, “Disruptive offers companies and brands the data analytics, predictive marketing and micro-targeting techniques we learned from political campaigning. We are good at running precision-targeted campaigns that resonate and grow at a grassroots level.”
Kanto is currently working with the anti-abortion group Save the 8th in Ireland. According to Save The 8th spokesperson John McGuirk, the British analytics firm was hired to build the campaign’s website and perform some data analytics.
A separate openDemocracy investigation in tandem with Irish new outlet theJournal.ie found that Irish pro-life groups have been acquiring the electoral register across Ireland.
‘Who’s to know where this data goes?’
Campaigners and experts in data protection and election law have queried the need for third parties to hold large amounts of personal data from the electoral roll and called for regulators to ensure that data is held responsibly.
“Who’s to know where this data goes once it’s given to these organisations and how it’s used? It’s not inconceivable that it could be used to create lookalike audiences and target people much more broadly using data models and social media networks like Facebook,” said Kyle Taylor, founder of advocacy group Fair Vote.
Taylor called for tighter restrictions on access to the electoral roll amid rising concerns about the use of data in political campaigning.
“We need much bigger structural changes like creating a national electoral roll register and giving greater resource to the Electoral Commission to track and manage distribution and use of the electoral roll as well as proper prosecutorial power to punish those who misuse this data.”
A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office said: “Even though an organisation may be entitled to receive a copy of the electoral roll, this does not provide an exemption to data protection laws. They have to make sure they are processing personal data fairly and in line with the law and ensure it is not kept for longer than is necessary.
An Electoral Commission spokesperson said: “Electoral registration officers are responsible for supplying the register and outlining the conditions under which it can be used, we advise them to make the penalties for improper use clear. Anyone using the data incorrectly should be referred to the ICO or the police, who will determine if an offence has been committed.”