We now come to offences, and crucially in clause 189, the question of penalties for offences. The real world has provided us with some tests for the legislation over the past few days. We have reviewed clauses 189 to 192 again in the light of this week’s news. Some quite serious questions have been provoked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the revelations about the misuse of data that was collected through an app that sat on the Facebook platform.
For those who missed it, the story is fairly simple. A Cambridge-based academic created an app that allowed the collection not only of personal data but of data associated with one’s friends on Facebook. The data was then transferred to Cambridge Analytica, and that dataset became the soft code platform on which forensic targeting was deployed during the American presidential elections. We do not yet know, because the Mueller inquiry has not been completed, who was paying for the dark social ads targeted at individuals, as allowed by Cambridge Analytica’s methodology.
The right hon. Gentleman’s point makes it clear that the legislation is extremely timely. Does he not agree that that is why we are all here today—to try to improve the current situation?
Absolutely. That is why the European Commission has been working on it for so long. Today’s legislation incorporates a bit of European legislation into British law.
The crime that may have been committed is the international transfer of data. It is highly likely that data collected here in the UK was transferred to the United States and deployed—weaponised, in a way—in a political campaign in the United States. It is not clear that that is legal.
The scandal has knocked about $40 billion off the value of Facebook. I noted with interest that Mr Zuckerberg dumped a whole load of Facebook stock the weekend before the revelations on Monday and Tuesday, and no doubt his shareholders will want to hold him to account for that decision. I read his statement when it finally materialised on Facebook last night, and it concerned me that there was not one word of apology to Facebook users in it. There was an acknowledgement that there had been a massive data breach and a breach of trust, but there was not a single word of apology for what had happened or for Facebook basically facilitating and enabling it. That tells me that we simply will not be able to rely on Facebook self-policing adherence to data protection policies.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster is absolutely right—that is why the Bill is absolutely necessary—but the question about the clause is whether the sanctions for misbehaviour are tough enough. Of the two or three things that concerned me most this week, one was how on earth it took the Information Commissioner so long to get the warrant she wanted to search the Cambridge Analytica offices. The Minister may want to say a word about whether that warrant has now been issued. That time lag begs the question whether there is a better way of giving the Information Commissioner the power to conduct such investigations. As we rehearsed in an earlier sitting, the proposed sanctions are financial, but the reality is that many of Cambridge Analytica’s clients are not short of cash—they are not short of loose change—so even the proposed new fines are not necessarily significant enough.
I say that because we know that the companies that contract with organisations such as Cambridge Analytica are often shell companies, so a fine that is cast as a percentage of turnover is not necessarily a sufficient disincentive for people to break the law. That is why I ask the Minister again to consider reviewing the clause and to ask herself, her officials and her Government colleagues whether we should consider a sanction of a custodial sentence where people get in the way of an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
I am afraid that such activities will continue. I very much hope that the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport reflects on our exchange on the Floor of the House this morning and uses the information he has about public contracts to do a little more work to expose who is in the network of individuals associated with Cambridge Analytica and where other companies may be implicated in this scandal. We know, because it has said so, that Cambridge Analytica is in effect a shell company—it is in effect a wholly owned subsidiary of SCL Elections Ltd—but we also know that it has an intellectual property sharing agreement with other companies, such as AggregateIQ. Mr Alexander Nix, because he signed the non-disclosure agreement, was aware of that. There are relationships between companies around Cambridge Analytica that extend far and wide. I mentioned this morning that I am concerned that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office may be bringing some of them together for its computational propaganda conference somewhere in the countryside this weekend.
The point I really want the Minister to address is whether she is absolutely content that the sanctions proposed under the clause are sufficient to deter and prosecute the kind of misbehaviour, albeit still only alleged, that has been in the news this week, which raises real concerns.
I will be very brief, because I will largely echo what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill said. It is absolutely fair to say that our understanding of the potential value of personal information, including that gained by people who break data protection laws, has increased exponentially in recent times, as has our understanding of the damage that can be done to victims of such breaches. I agree that it is not easy to see why the proposed offences stop where they do.
I have a specific question about why there is a two-tier system of penalties. There is a set of offences that are triable only in a summary court and for which there is a maximum fine. I think the maximum in Scotland and Northern Ireland is £5,000. There is a second set of offences that could conceivably be triable on indictment, and there is provision there for an unlimited fine, but not any custodial sentence.
For some companies, if they were in trouble, a £5,000 fine for essentially obstructing justice would be small beer, especially if it allowed them to avoid an unlimited fine. It would be interesting to hear an explanation for that. Many folk would see some of the offences that are triable on indictment as morally equivalent to embezzlement, serious theft or serious fraud, so it is legitimate to ask why there is no option for a custodial sentence in any circumstance.
I certainly share the concerns that hon. Members have expressed in the light of the dreadful Cambridge Analytica scandal. I will set out the penalties for summary only offences, which lie in clause 119, “Inspection of personal data in accordance with international obligations”; clause 173, “Alteration etc of personal data to prevent disclosure”; and paragraph 15(1) of schedule 15, which contains the offence of obstructing the execution of a warrant. The maximum penalty on summary conviction for those offences is an unlimited fine in England and Wales or a level 5 fine in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Clause 189(2) sets out the maximum penalties for offences that can be tried summarily on indictment, which include offences in clause 132 “Confidentiality of information”; clause 145 “False statements made in response to an information notice”; clause 170 “Unlawful obtaining etc of personal data”; clause 171 “Re-identification of de-identified personal data”; and clause 181 “Prohibition of requirement to produce relevant records”. Again, the maximum penalty when tried summarily in England or Wales, or on indictment, is an unlimited fine. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the maximum penalty on summary conviction is a fine
“not exceeding the statutory maximum” of an unlimited fine when tried on indictment.
I was listening carefully to the Minister’s reply. She said that the sanction is an unlimited fine in England and Wales. Let us take the hypothetical case of Cambridge Analytica, which is a one-man shell company, in effect; in the UK, it is wholly owned by SCL Elections. I am concerned about what happens if that holding company—let us say it is SCL Elections—is registered outside England and Wales, in the United States or Uruguay, for example? Will the fine bite on the one-man shell company, Cambridge Analytica? If so, the shell company will just go out of business—the directors will be struck off and that will be the end of it. That is not much of a sanction.
The sanctions are as I outlined. The right hon. Gentleman talks about more complex corporate structures. Later in our proceedings, we will touch on the jurisdiction of the general data protection regulation when it comes to dealing with cross-border situations outside the European Union. Perhaps we can throw some light on what he is saying when we come to that point.
The GDPR strengthens the rights of data subjects over their data, including the important right of consent and what constitutes consent by the data subject to the use and processing of their data. That right must now be clear, robust and unambiguous. That is a key change that will provide some protection in the future.
The right hon. Gentleman should remember that, in addition to data protection laws, other sanctions are available, including prosecution for computer misuse, fraud and, potentially, in the case of the example we have been talking about, electoral laws, depending on the circumstances.