Data ‘dark arts’ prompts ICO to investigate UK campaigning practices

The UK's data protection watchdog istaking a long hard look at the country's political parties ahead of next month's general election. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has opened an investigation into how political organisations target voters

The Information Commissioner herself, Elizabeth Denham, will be leading the investigation into, among other things, how political campaigns use data, analytics and social media to reach potential voters.

She announced the opening of the investigation in a recent blog post, saying “This is a complex and rapidly evolving area of activity and the level of awareness among the public about how data analytics works, and how their personal data is collected, shared and used through such tools, is low. What is clear is that these tools have a significant potential impact on individuals' privacy.”

New revelations surrounding the Brexit referendum, revealed novel, and deeply controversial, new uses of data to target voters. Both campaigns spent much of their money on employing big data to gain an edge over their political rivals.

A Guardian investigation into the practices sparked outrage after disclosing the Brexit campaign's creative use of the ‘dark arts' of big data with firms like AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica to microtarget voters, who, being based outside of Europe, can circumvent stricter European privacy law.

Denham confirmed that the investigation will be looking at the practices used by parts of the Leave campaign: “This will involve deepening our current activity to explore practices deployed during the UK's EU Referendum campaign but potentially also in other campaigns. Given the transnational nature of data the investigation will involve exploring how companies operating internationally deploy such practices with impact or handling of data in the UK.”

Earlier this month, The ICO fined Better for The Country Ltd, a group campaigning to the leave the EU, £50,000 for sending nuisance texts without the consent of the recipients. The group had apparently bought the list of names from a third party, which had collected the information without telling the subjects that their information would be used in political campaigning.

Two months, earlier Labour MP David Lammy was fined £5,000 for making more than 35,000 nuisance calls in two days, asking recipients to vote for him in his candidacy for Mayor.

This is just the beginning of a long process, added Denham, “shining a light on such practices will require detailed investigative work and engagement with a range of organisations – political parties and campaigns, data companies and social media platforms, as well as international cooperation.”

The ICO has also released updated guidance on political campaigning.

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