Study finds government using personal data to target messages

Academics say digital tactics raise legal and ethical questions

Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Police and government agencies are using tactics developed by digital marketing and advertising firms – such as digital platforms, paid targeted advertising, and social media influencers – to change public behaviour, academics have found.

The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research – led by Glasgow, Stirling, Edinburgh and Strathclyde universities – found that UK public sector bodies are using digital channels to influence crime prevention, health and social policy.

Examples in their study include a National Crime Agency ‘influence operation’ to tackle cybercrime involving surveillance, direct intervention, and targeted online advertising. Another is a Government Communication Service training podcast which claims that the Home Office used the purchasing data of people who had bought candles to target their smart speakers with fire safety tips.

Under David Cameron’s coalition government post-2010, preventative policy was brought together with communications practices in the form of the Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the ‘nudge’ unit

The academics describe the new developments as a move beyond ‘nudge’ or ‘behavioural science’ approaches, towards a well-established set of digital practices which they term ‘influence government’.

But the shift raises legal and ethical questions. For example, how particular groups and characteristics are selected, the use of operational data to inform these campaigns and privacy and data rights concerns.

Daniel Thomas of University of Strathclyde, who co-authored the report, said the practices required more scrutiny: “These advanced marketing approaches are more than just ‘communications’ and go far beyond media management.

“Our research suggests they are frontline policy interventions and need to be seen as such, and subjected to the same public debate, scrutiny and accountability as other such policies.”

Sam Trendall

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