Information Commissioner to investigate use of data analytics for political purposes including companies operating internationally

Elizabeth Denham, UK Information Commissioner, has announced today that she has launched a formal investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes. In response to a question from PL&B, she confirmed in open session at the ICO Conference in March, that the ICO was assessing the use of micro-targeting by the Leave Campaign in the EU referendum. Now the initial look at the role of Cambridge Analytica (CA) and partner companies abroad has broadened into this formal investigation into micro-targeting services.

The company itself claims such influence: “We find your voters and move them to action….CA Political has redefined the relationship between data and campaigns. By knowing your electorate better, you can achieve greater influence while lowering overall costs.” [Source: today]

It is not clear whether the claims of the companies of substantial influence over the behaviour of individuals targeted can be fully sustained by the facts. The issue in legal terms is the limited extent to which individuals are aware of, and have consented to, their social media and purchasing behaviour being used for unrelated purposes.

Elizabeth Denham wrote today: “Engagement with the electorate is vital to the democratic process. Given the big data revolution it is understandable that political campaigns are exploring the potential of advanced data analysis tools to help win votes. 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…What is clear is that 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.”

The scope of the investigation will extend beyond the EU referendum to other campaigns and beyond the UK to companies operating internationally.

Elizabeth Denham will speak at PL&B’s 30th Anniversary International Conference, Promoting Privacy with Innovation, 3-5 July at St. John’s College, Cambridge.