June 19, 2017

Big Data and UK Politics

5 minute read

In today’s information-saturated world, data is a currency worth its weight in gold. Marketers have long-since recognised the potential treasure-trove big data represents. In the commercial sphere, using carefully mined and incredibly accurate information about consumers, marketers can create highly targeted communications offering products and services likely to appeal.

And they’re not the only ones; politicians are now increasingly making use of big data to shape their political campaigns and home in on key groups of voters. While this isn’t a new development in politics, it is on the rise, and as we move towards the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the gap between what politicians are espousing and their own activities seems to be widening.

In the wake of one of the most significant General Elections and its subsequent hung parliament, we’ve taken a closer look at the way campaigning parties are using data analytics, and the impact this could have on personal privacy, both at home and abroad.

The laws governing data use in politics

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has published information for the public about political campaigning practices in the UK and how parties can legally collect, store and use information about voters. This includes the various methods they may use to contact voters, as well as an individual’s rights to ask what campaigners intend to do with their personal data.

Crucially, the ICO states that “a political campaign can conduct genuine research in the same way professional market research companies do, to help inform their views and create policies. However, communications claiming to be for research that are in reality intended to gain your support, now or at some point in the future, are marketing and need your specific consent.”

It seems evident that campaigners are using data with the aim of identifying voters they think they can sway, which is undoubtedly an example of intent to gain support. Analytical models are now more than capable of pinpointing swing voters or marginal geographic areas by manipulating personal information. So that begs the question, should campaigners be requesting consent from voters before accessing their personal data?

How are the UK political parties using big data?

In short, it’s hard to say, and that’s part of the problem. But it’s more than likely that political campaigning in the recent election has made extensive use of the wealth of freely available personal data we volunteer about ourselves on social media and other online sources. Each of the major UK political parties has its own data analytics platform, which presumably work in a similar way to the sophisticated marketing segmentation tools created by Facebook and Google.

In the final days of campaigning before the General Election, the frequency and urgency of political ads appearing on Facebook hit a new high, as reported by Who Targets Me, an independent project created to shed light on political parties’ use of Facebook advertising. When WTM passed their crowdsourced social media feeds from over 10,000 Facebook users to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, they found that all three of the major parties were using ‘dark ads’ – ads containing material that doesn’t appear anywhere on their official party pages.

Combine this with the Labour party’s surge in popularity just before polling day, which they likely owed in no small part to social media advertising targeting young voters, and a picture starts to emerge. As reported in the Guardian, Labour’s analytics platform, Promote, is said to have merged information from Facebook with their own voter data to send highly targeted local messages. According to a campaign source, “People were seeing stories about their school and hospital, not just national messaging like the Tories were doing. It has played in to the fact that people felt Labour’s message was authentic and speaking to them and their lives” (Guardian.com).

With such findings evident, the laws as set out by the ICO seem to be a little out of date. Presumably, all of this research and social media data mining is done behind the scenes without voters’ knowledge, and as such, cannot realistically be called ‘communications’. It’s hard to say how this kind of big data use fits into the ICO’s guidance if voters are completely unaware that their personal data is being used in the first place.

The ICO seem to agree, as they launched an official investigation into the use of data analytics in political campaigning earlier this year, stressing the importance of “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,” (ICO Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, bt.com).

It could be that the technology used to disseminate information has simply advanced faster than the legislation governing it, and future laws will need to take into account the grey area that is big data.

How big data disturbed US politics

As reported, the ICO came to the decision to look into political data analysis after assessing the risks to data protection posed by the alleged involvement of data-driven campaigning experts Cambridge Analytica (CA) in the EU referendum.

Cambridge Analytica specialise in detailed psychographic profiling of both voters and consumers that can be used to predict how they may behave, something the company put to good use for Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. CA created groups of similar-minded voters based on the results from over a million personality tests, taken by normal Americans online, over the phone and while out and about, scaling these up to produce an astonishingly accurate picture of the electorate at large. By combining these results with up to 5,000 data points on record about every adult in the country (data that’s available to purchase), CA was able to predict voting behaviour based on personality to an incredible degree. But whereas Trump’s campaigners were free to use data in this way on their side of the pond, the legislation governing data use in politics for UK parties make this kind of activity unlawful.

Elizabeth Denham, information commissioner at the ICO, said she believed that CA was strongly connected to those behind the Leave campaign during the run up to the Brexit decision in 2016, although CA themselves deny playing any part, paid or otherwise. Any role they may have played would have had to have been reported to the Electoral Commission, the independent body charged with overseeing elections and regulating political finance.

While the ICO’s investigation will look at the use of big data in political campaigning in general, they have made clear this will involve “deepening […] current activity to explore practices deployed during the UK’s EU referendum campaign,” (ICO Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, bt.com).

Until we have an outcome to the investigation, it remains to be seen if, and to what extent, campaigning for the EU referendum breached data protection and privacy laws. However, what is clear is the ambiguity surrounding big data use in politics, which is only made murkier by the vastly different laws in effect in different parts of the world.

What about GDPR?

In her key Brexit speech in January 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May set out her intentions for carrying the UK into a future outside of the European Union. In it she confirmed the conversion of existing EU laws into UK law, including the EU’s GDPR regulation, set to come into effect in 2018.

Secretary of State, Karen Bradley MP, has also stated, “we will be members of the EU in 2018 and therefore it would be expected and quite normal for us to opt into the GDPR and then look later at how best we might be able to help British business with data protection while maintaining high levels of protection for members of the public.”

It’s therefore fair to say that the government is thoroughly on board with GDPR and the toughening up of UK data protection and privacy laws that it represents. As such, their own potential forays in big data mining can be seen as all the more disturbing, given that they could be violating the very laws they claim to stand for.

Once it’s introduced, GDPR could have the power to outlaw the kind of big data voter profiling that political campaigners are likely carrying out. GDPR’s main objective is to make sure organisations can only use our personal information for the exact purpose for which it was given, so if we don’t want our data used to predict our voting behaviour by campaigners, in theory we should be able to prevent it.

How this will work in practice remains to be seen, but more stringent laws on the use of big data could mean that future UK election campaigns are carried out very differently to what we’re currently used to.

Posted by Sarah Cumber


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Big Data and UK Politics