Lord Tyler: The impact of data misuse on the Brexit result must be uncovered
Allegations about Facebook’s misuse of data have raised new and deeply disturbing questions. Ministers must not be complacent about the potential impact, writes Lord Tyler
The revelations come thick and fast. Daily - sometimes it seems like hourly - we learn that our personal data may have been misused in ever more controversial ways. In particular, ingenious development of Facebook material appears to have played a key role in targeting both positive messages and contrived attacks in the Trump election campaign and to secure the Brexit result of our own 2016 EU Referendum.
Ministers have so far hidden behind a reassuring report from the Electoral Commission about the conduct of that referendum. However, that was issued months ago, long before the detailed analysis from Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer began to gain traction, and the whistleblowers from Cambridge Analytica, AIQ and the Leave campaigns emerged to give their evidence. Since the turn of the year, the alleged network of illicit collaboration has caused the Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner and the House of Commons Culture Media & Sport Select Committee to open new investigations. The latter, led by Conservative MP Damian Collins, is being especially pro-active, and their witness list in the next few days is itself an indication of the vital role parliamentary select committees can now play.
Despite apparent BBC attempts to minimise the significance of all this increasing weight of evidence (presumably because other media have provided the investigative journalism) there are signs of growing public unease. Have we as a nation been conned, just like so many in the US? Has our personal data been “scraped” for this purpose? Are our very strict laws, which seek to protect our elections and referendum campaigns from being bought by billionaires and foreign governments, up to the job?
Carole Cadwalladr wrote recently: “It’s not about party politics. It’s not about Leave/Remain. It’s about the future of our democracy in the digital age.”
Twice in recent weeks, I have challenged ministers in the Lords to respond to the serious nature of these allegations. On 28 March I asked Lord Young: “Does the Government not recognise that there are continuing public doubts about the integrity of the system, which he has just described as robust, and which then challenge the legitimacy of the whole Brexit process?”
He replied: “We will never know if the law was broken and whether it made any difference. My personal view is that it was unlikely, and there are better explanations as to why people voted as they did, rather than that they were targeted by an algorithm.”
Is the Government still so confident that no illegality will be established? And if it is - given the narrow outcome, with 16 people voting to Remain for every 17 voting to Leave - how does that affect the current stampede over the Brexit cliff? I think we should be told.
Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress last week provided no new answers to all these allegations about the impact of Facebook data misuse in the UK, but it certainly raised new and deeply disturbing questions. If even he admits the very serious nature of these faults, how come ministers are so complacent?
Lord Tyler is a Liberal Democrat peer and the party’s Lords spokesperson for Constitutional and Political Reform. His oral question will take place on Wednesday 18 April