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Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Is online campaigning by political parties breaking data protection laws?

As the general election campaigning enters its final week, there is growing concern about the way political parties are using online campaigning to target voters. Questions have been raised about whether parties have been sufficiently transparent when targeting adverts at voters based on data held by social media networks including Facebook.

In an interview on BBC News this week, our Principal, Stephanie Pritchett, homed in on the issue at the heart of the debate: “If you’re collecting information, whether it’s through your social media channels or through party members directly … it comes back to this transparency point: you have to be clear with people where you got the information from and what you’re planning to do with that information.

Large-scale digital electioneering was first used in the USA in 2008, for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and has grown since. For the current general election, the Conservative and Labour parties are understood to be spending £1 million each on their social media campaigns, focusing mainly on Facebook. These campaigns involve using third-party data to carry out profiling, and then targeting individuals by using analytics, which are regarded as relatively privacy-intrusive methods. The onus will be on the political parties to justify their methods and show that they are protecting the rights of the individuals whom they are profiling.

If they are found to be breaking the rules, the political parties and social media networks could face fines of up to £500,000. The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has already announced an investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes, saying, “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 … these tools have a significant potential impact on individuals’ privacy. It is important that there is greater and genuine transparency about the use of such techniques to ensure that people have control over their own data and the law is upheld.

Update (27 June 2017): A Channel 4 News investigation has since found that the Conservative Party contracted a secret call centre during the election campaign that may have broken data protection and election laws. The investigation claimed that, on the day of the election itself, call centre employees contacted voters in marginal constituencies to promote individual candidates, which may be a breach of electoral law. In response to this, the ICO issued a statement, saying, The Information Commissioner reminded campaigners from political parties of their obligations around direct marketing at the beginning of the election campaign. Where we find they haven’t followed the law we will act. We will be asking the Conservative Party about the marketing campaigns conducted from this call centre.

If you have any questions about how data protection laws might affect your organisation, please don’t hesitate to contact Pritchetts for advice and support.

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