University trawled sensitive data to drive donations

The records of almost 200,000 Oxford alumni have been inspected since August 2007.

Cecil the lion in the Hwange National Park

Oxford University employed private investigators to examine the financial backgrounds of individuals who donated to the University following the death of Cecil the Lion, Cherwell can disclose.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has now begun an investigation into revelations that British universities breached data protection laws by passing the details of donors on to private investigators.

Following Cecil’s death, 11,000 individuals donated a total of over £750,000 to an Oxford campaign in support of the University’s wildlife conservation unit, which had previously been tracking the lion. Oxford then passed donor details onto the private scheme ‘WealthPoint’ in order that they could identify individuals wealthy enough that might donate again.

According to a freedom of information (FOI) request, seen by Cherwell, the University had employed Blackbaud Inc – who run the service – since 2013, but has now ended its subscription. When contacted for a comment on this, a spokesperson declined to provide any further information.

An FOI request made by the Daily Mail revealed this week that Oxford has also been using privately employed investigators to examine the financial status of former students. Data gathered included information about the present job, position, and wealth band of alumni.

The records of almost 200,000 Oxford alumni have been inspected since August 2007. Three private companies have been used by the University to collect and analyse this data, including a company called Prospecting for Gold and another named Wealth Engine. These assessments can be used to find out the likelihood that individuals will donate in future, or even write Oxford into their will.

In November and December 2014 private firm ‘Wealth Engine’ was provided the details of 3,669 individuals in preparation for a telethon.

The FOI request showed that 24 Russell Group Universities have been using similar data screening methods, some of which have been running since 1997. £1 billion was donated to UK universities last year, with the majority going to Russell Group institutions.

Related  The Oxford interview: a helper's view

Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said: “Personal data belongs to the individual. That means telling people what it’s going to be used for and who it’s going to be shared with. This is what the law required.

“We will look carefully at the evidence provided by the Daily Mail to see if and where any rules have been broken.”

In 2017, the ICO fined eleven charities a total of £138,000 after they breached data protection law. If an institution failed to gain consent from individuals to screen them, or their reasonable expectation that their data would be stored, they may have broken the law.

An Oxford University spokesperson told Cherwell: “We have used wealth screening firms to support our efforts to raise money for our research and teaching objectives, but it is a tiny part of our fundraising activity and the vast majority of the screening happened at least eight years ago.

“We have not tried to hide this – every email sent to alumni has a link to our data protection statement, which clarifies that our development and alumni relations system may be used for fundraising and hold donor status and wealth assessment information.

“For many years, all alumni have been able to opt out if they do not wish their data to be used in this way, and we would never sell their data to external partners.

“We are committed to transparency in the use of our data and we will continue to review our data protection statement to see if we can make it clearer.

“We are proud of the results of our successful fundraising campaign – it has funded thousands of students from all backgrounds to study at Oxford, and research which has transformed the lives of people around the world.”

Cherwell has seen emails that have been sent to alumni in which a data protection statement has been attached. The link is usually placed at the very bottom of emails and leads to a website that lays out the policies of the University’s Development and Alumni Relations System.