One of the âlargest and most sophisticated datasets in the countryâ â including the TV viewing, internet and phone records of 13 million households â could be misused for political purposes if Rupert Murdoch is allowed to proceed with his plan to buy out Sky, six members of the House of Lords claim in a letter to the Observer.
The governmentâs decision on whether to allow the takeover of the broadcaster by Murdochâs 21st Century Fox may come as early as next week, but a cross-party group of peers led by the film-maker David Puttnam â who was involved in drafting the 2003 Telecommunications Act â have joined forces to highlight what they say is a significant oversight with potentially huge ramifications. Fox currently owns 39% of Sky.
The letter says that âSky possess what is probably the UKâs largest and most sophisticated privately held domestic consumption databaseâ, able to âtrack the leisure time preferences and behaviourâ of a large proportion of the population of the UK and Ireland.But the safety and security of that data is threatened, the letter says, if âpassed into foreign controlâ. It warns that should it âfall into the hands of an owner with an appetite for political leverage, the temptations and opportunities for misuse become very great indeedâ.
Puttnam said: âThe deal would give unregulated access to this huge database from which an enormous amount of insight could be extracted. With that information, people can be individually targeted with advertisements personalised to them. And we have this unbelievable situation where we have no regulation of political advertisements, so a party can tell any lie they want.
âI do see this as a very grave threat to our democratic process. What is incredible is this hasnât been considered at any point. If you look at the asset value of Sky, you suddenly go, âWell, hang on there, hereâs a bit of unbelievable value but it hasnât been included in the priceâ.â
The letter says there is an âurgent needâ for the Information Commissioner to confirm data cannot be âmisused or misappliedâ before a Sky decision is made. It comes as the use of personal data by political parties has come under increasing scrutiny. The FBI and Senate intelligence committee are investigating if this data was used by the Russian government to target US voters. The Information Commissionerâs Office here launched an investigation into the micro-targeting of individual voters with personalised messages after a series of articles in the Observer.
The company at the heart of both US and UK investigations â Cambridge Analytica â is owned by a hedgefund billionaire and Trump donor, Robert Mercer. He is a close associate of Murdoch and Cambridge Analyticaâs US office was previously located in Murdochâs Newscorp building. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport told Puttnam it was awaiting the ICâs report into political use of data, though it is not due to be delivered until the autumn â after a Sky decision is made.
David Carroll, a professor at Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York, who is involved in legal efforts to uncover how companies use individualsâ data for political purposes, said that the deal would see the UK take a big step towards âthe American business model of total deregulation and total consolidation. This huge infrastructure has grown up where you can micro-target ads based on this hugely detailed knowledge about households, and itâs absolutely out of control when itâs applied to political messages. People donât appreciate how their entire consumer profile is attached to their household identity.
âThere is no privacy. These companies know exactly who we are. What weâve seen in the US with Trump and Cambridge Analytica is how this is used by political players.â
Chi Onwurah, the shadow minister for business, innovation and skills and former head of telecoms technology at Ofcom, said that the value and significance of the data in the Fox/Sky deal hadnât been taken into account in the governmentâs consideration of the deal.
âThe whole of competition law is based on buying services. So what isnât reflected anywhere in this process is that we exchange our data for services. Itâs hugely valuable, but itâs been completely hidden on the balance sheet. Itâs a massive fiduciary theft, in a way. Itâs not being sold for the value that it has. And the ramifications of that incredibly valuable data being controlled by vested interests has not even been considered.â
Phil Westcott, managing director of an AI consultancy firm, Filament, who advises companies on how to handle emerging technology, said that what was most alarming was that a single company would own not just this âincredibly rich datasetâ but also âall the main information channels into peopleâs livesâ. Although Ofcom bans political advertising on TV, Lord Puttnam said the definition of what is political is a grey area and Westcott points out that at a single stroke Murdoch would gain control of the entire information environment of millions of people.
âHe would control peopleâs access to the internet, TV, digital radio and emails. As an internet service provider, you can speed up or slow down certain websites to control what people see. And if you own all these channels, youâd be able to influence people very subtly. It wouldnât even necessarily be overtly politically, it could just nudge you in a certain direction by filtering the messaging you receive. And those messages could be completely different from the person next door. What I find most scary about this is how certain news and information could simply be filtered out.â