ICO launches investigation into use of data analytics in political campaigning

UK data watchdog says tools used in targeted advertising ‘have a significant potential impact on individuals’ privacy’

Elizabeth Denham said the use of data analytics tools in political campaigning could have a significant impact on privacy – Photo credit: DCMS

The UK’s data watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office has launched a formal investigation into the way political parties use advanced data analytics to target voters.

The move follows more concerted efforts from the parties to target voters on social media – the Conservatives spent £1.2m on Facebook alone during the 2015 election campaign, and Labour is reportedly planning to try and up its spending on the platform this time around.

The information commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in a blogpost published today (17 May) that public awareness of the way personal data is collected, shared and used for political campaigns is “low”.

However, she said, the use of advanced data analytics tools “have a significant potential impact” on people’s privacy.



“Given the big data revolution it is understandable that political campaigns are exploring the potential of advanced data analysis tools to help win votes,” Denham said.

“The public have the right to expect that this takes place in accordance with the law as it relates to data protection and electronic marketing.”

Denham said that the work would involve social media platforms as well as political parties and data companies, and that it would be a high priority for the ICO in the coming months.

The launch of the formal investigation marks an extension of work the ICO was doing to assess the data protection risks associated with the use of data analytics for political purposes, which was launched in March.

“This will involve deepening our current activity to explore practices deployed during the UK’s EU Referendum campaign but potentially also in other campaigns,” Denham said.

She added that, although the timing was “unrelated” to the current general election campaign, she reminded them “of the need to comply with the law” – and noted the updated guidance on political campaigning that she has sent to all parties.

This includes a warning that organisations processing information that people make publicly available on social media – for any purpose, whether it is to understand trends in the electorate or find and influence voters – is still subject to the Data Protection Act.

“This brings with it duties for the party commissioning the analytics and rights for the individuals to whom the data relates,” the document states.

“It includes the duty to tell people how their data is being used. While people might expect that the electoral register is used for election campaigns they may well not be aware of how other data about them can be used and combined in complex analytics.

“Even where information about individuals is apparently publicly accessible, this does not automatically mean that it can be reused for another purpose. If a political organisation collects and processes this data, then it is a data controller for that data, and has to comply with the requirements of the DPA in relation to it.”

Earlier on in the campaign, political parties were warned not to abuse statistics in their campaigns by issuing misleading statements or cherry-picking data.

The chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, David Norgrove, wrote to the leaders of all the parties in April to stress that the misuse of statistics “at any time damages the integrity of statistics, causes confusion and undermines trust”.


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