The British National Party is facing an investigation by privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner after allegations that it has illegally purchased a database of UK Independence Party members’ names and addresses from a “disaffected member of UKIP” for £500.
The alleged breach of Data Protection Law came to light when many of the names on that list were contacted by the BNP as part of a fund-raising drive ahead of the most recent European Elections, in which the BNP gained two seats.
The party’s controversial leader Nick Griffin is alleged to have purchased the database himself, although he has publicly denied the claim. This incident comes one week after the leaking of a list of the BNP’s own membership via the internet and his hotly debated appearance on the BBC’s “Question Time”.
The BNP are a minority political party who is in the midst of a concerted media campaign whose aim is to try to shift them into mainstream politics and which has seen them come under fire over their use of the image of Winston Churchill and other wartime icons as part of a recruitment drive. Part of their strategy has been to cast themselves as misunderstood and the victim of what Nick Griffin has described as “a concerted anti-BNP campaign” in the media.
This story won’t help their image. The party has seen its membership leaked three times over the past few years and has regularly quoted the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1988 when the leaks occurred. It may be that this changes the landscape and erodes any momentum which they may have been gathering after Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time. Griffin has claimed that he has never, nor has any BNP member, ever personally purchased such a list although he does admit that some details of UKIP’s membership had been passed by former members.
Breaching the Data Protection Act is a serious matter. The Act regulates how personal data (information about a living, identifiable individual such as a name, address, telephone number etc.) can be gathered, stored and processed and contains a number of principles with which any organisation using that data must comply, including: fair processing, being obtained for a specific lawful purpose, being kept accurate and only held for as long as is necessary, and putting suitable security measures in place to ensure that the data is not misused.
It would appear here that the UKIP data has been badly misused, both by its disgruntled members and then by the BNP in contacting them to try and raise funds. This will mean that anyone named in the database could potentially sue either party for damages caused directly by its misuse or distress if the list finds its way into the press, not to mention a privacy claim. There are also potential criminal sanctions – if an organisation breaches the DPA persistently after notification from the Information Commissioner or buys information which has been obtained in breach of the principles, then it can be fined up to £5,000 in the Magistrates’ Court or face an unlimited fine at the Crown Court.
What makes this particular breach even more serious is that the data in question is regarded as “sensitive personal data” by the DPA, as it contains information which details an identifiable person’s political opinions. This is an important distinction, as a further set of principles apply. Sensitive personal data can’t be used unless these principles are followed to the letter, and usually the subject of the data will need to consent to its being used in any way. This obviously hasn’t happened here, and the timing may be very unfortunate for the BNP as the Information Commissioner is currently consulting on whether or not to impose prison sentences for breaches of the Act.
As much as a breach of the DPA is grave enough, this leak has taken place in a week where tension over the activities of the BNP is running particularly high, and many people on the list may be rightly concerned that their personal safety has been put at risk if they are linked with the BNP in any way. This may lead to the Information Commissioner taking a tougher stance than normal and the imposition of higher than usual fines, which may well cancel out the benefit of any funds which were raised by contacting the UKIP members in question. Whatever the case, this won’t help Nick Griffin’s attempts to legitimise the BNP and will probably only fuel public contempt even further.