ICO to probe use of personal data in government anti-disinformation work

Data watchdog will speak to Cabinet Office and DSIT following media revelations about social-media monitoring

By Sam Trendall

16 Jun 2023

The UK’s data-protection watchdog will investigate government’s anti-disinformation work following numerous reports that officials have monitored and flagged posts from citizens simply for being critical of policy.

The largely secretive work of various teams – primarily the Counter-Disinformation Unit (CDU), which was established in 2019 in the then Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – has come under scrutiny in the last few months following the February publication of a report from campaign group Big Brother Watch, working with the Mail on Sunday.

The exposé found that government operations dedicated to combatting disinformation had flagged online comments – including from Conservative and Labour MPs, as well as journalists – that contained no factual inaccuracies, but simply criticised the government, particularly regarding policies regarding lockdowns and vaccine rollout.

Following the report, a series of articles in the Telegraph – citing former CDU senior official Sarah Connolly – have alleged that the unit was in “hourly contact” with social media firms, and often urged them to remove posts, including those that did not necessarily breach any guidelines. Many such requests were refused, according to reports.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said that, having previously investigated government’s anti-disinformation earlier in the pandemic, it would be talking to government again, in light of the recent revelations. 

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, the ICO spoke with the Cabinet Office about the Government Communications Service’s monitoring of the impact of government messaging and identifying of disinformation," an ICO spokesperson said.

"The ICO concluded our enquiries in September 2021 and provided advice to the Cabinet Office on the matter, including around what data was being gathered, and what privacy information was being provided.

"Following the information that has now come to light about the government's broader use of personal data in this area, we'll be speaking with the Cabinet Office and Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to learn more about how people's information is being used.”

In response to the recent media coverage, the Cabinet Office and DSIT – the new home of the CDU – several days ago published a "fact sheet" about the unit, intend to provide details of “what it does and does not do”. 

“The CDU uses publicly available data, including material shared on social media platforms, to develop an understanding of disinformation narratives and trends,” the document said. “It does not, and has never, monitored individuals and all data is anonymised wherever possible.”

The fact sheet has done little to quell criticism of the unit, including from former cabinet minister David Davis, who has called for the CDU to be shut down and subjected to a parliamentary enquiry.

Big Brother Watch has also published a ‘fact check’ of the fact sheet, disputing some of the government’s claims.

Director Silkie Carlo added: “The CDU’s zeal for censorship was so extreme that they were not only flagging lawful speech for censorship but speech that couldn’t even be found to violate highly restrictive Silicon Valley content rules. This casts serious doubt on the legitimacy and lawfulness of the unit’s activities, which are ongoing.

"The Counter Disinformation Unit should be immediately suspended and subjected to an inquiry, to ensure public resources are being used appropriately and Britons’ right to free speech is being protected.”

Last year, efforts by CSW's sister title PublicTechnology to find out details of the CDU were rebuffed by DCMS, which declined to release all information asked for in a Freedom of Information request – including such basic detail as the number of staff employed by the unit.

The department’s response justified the withholding of information on the grounds of a need to protect government’s “relationship with social media platforms”, as well as a desire to “preserve a ‘safe space' around ministers and government officials”.

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared

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