An investigation by the ICO has found that political parties and campaign groups, from all sides have been targeting potential voters using data analytics methods. These techniques, known collectively as microtargeting, help the parties and groups deliver very specific messages directly to small groups with shared interests or opinions or directly to individuals.
What is microtargeting?
Are political parties and campaign groups allowed to target me in this way?
This is not a simple yes or no answer. Political parties, candidates and registered permitted participants, such as referendum campaign groups are allowed a copy of the full electoral register. This includes details of people with UK addresses who are registered to vote.
You can find out more about the use of the electoral register in UK elections in our advice about political campaign practices: direct marketing.
Political parties and referendum campaign groups have a vital role to play in the democratic process. It is important they’re able to communicate with potential voters and promote their views. Data protection law does not restrict this. However, one of the main issues with these campaign methods is the lack of transparency by political parties and campaign groups about the fact they are using them.
These groups have personal information about individuals and are using it to target them through digital advertising. But, the individual doesn’t know their data is being used in this way. This goes against one of the key principles of data protection law, which requires organisations to process personal data fairly, ensuring that people know what is happening with their data.
What are the ICO doing to improve things?
On Wednesday 11 July 2018, the ICO issued a report about their investigation and findings. The Information Commissioner wrote formally to 11 political parties about the investigation and the steps they should take to improve their practices. All parties are required to report to them on the actions they have taken within three months. Following completion of the actions in their letters, the Information Commissioner will serve an assessment notice to those they believe still need to do more. All of the main political parties can expect to be served an assessment notice, meaning ICO staff will complete audits of their practices.
The report made a number of recommendations about how the transparency and ethical nature of these practices could be improved. Here are a few of those recommendations:
- Political parties need to work with the ICO, the Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission to improve the transparency around the use of data that all the parties have the right to have and use eg the electoral register.
- Online platforms who provide advertising services to political parties and campaigns should have expertise within the sales support team who can provide advice on transparency and accountability in relation to how data is used to target users.
- The Government should require the Information Commissioner to create a statutory Code of Practice about the use of personal data in political campaigns.
A full list of the recommendations can be found in the full report. Please note, these were only recommendations not actions and the results of them are yet to be seen.
What does the ICO suggest I do to protect my data?
- Be aware of how and why you are seeing certain messages online
The use of data analytics and targeted marketing is a modern and readily used practice. It can, in some instances, be beneficial to users eg showing you things that are relevant and interesting to you. But if you are concerned about why a certain organisation has targeted you, take a look at their privacy information on their website and see what it says about how they use your data.
- Be aware of your rights under data protection law
You have a number of strong rights under data protection law. The rights likely to be most relevant to political campaigning practices are your right to get copies of your data and your right to object to the use of your data.
- Change your social media privacy settings
The ICO has produced guidance about how to change you privacy settings on all the popular social media sites. This will help make sure the data you share on these sites is used in the way you expect.