Update on ICO investigation into data analytics for political purposes

By Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner.

data-analytics-update-blog.pngIn May I announced a formal investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes. We’re looking at how personal information was analysed to target people as part of political campaigning and have been particularly focused on the EU Referendum campaign.

We are concerned about invisible processing – the ‘behind the scenes’ algorithms, analysis, data matching, profiling that involves people’s personal information. When the purpose for using these techniques is related to the democratic process, the case for a high standard of transparency is very strong.

The overall goal of this investigation is to provide insight into how personal information is used in political campaigns. The Data Protection Act 1998 requires organisations to process personal data fairly and transparently and I doubt very much that the public understands what goes on behind the scenes in a political campaign let alone the potential impact on their privacy.

I’ve promised to provide an update on this investigation.

It will come as no surprise to hear that this has proven a complicated undertaking. But it’s not one that we shy away from.

It’s a complex and far-reaching investigation, involving over 30 organisations including political parties and campaigns, data companies and social media platforms. Among those organisations is AggregateIQ, a Canadian-based company, used by a number of the campaigns.

A number of organisations have freely co-operated with us, answered our questions and engaged with the investigation. But, others are making it difficult. In some instances we have been unable to obtain the specific details of work that contributed to the Referendum campaign and I will be using every available legal tool and working with authorities overseas to seek answers on behalf of UK citizens.

Other organisations have failed to be as comprehensive as I believe they need to be in answering our questions and have forced us to invoke our statutory powers to make formal demands for information. The ICO has issued four information notices as part of the investigation including one to UKIP, who have now appealed our notice to the Information Rights Tribunal.

This investigation is a high priority for my office. We’re asking whether there was a legal basis to use this information. Did people have a way of exercising their privacy rights?

The Electoral Commission is also examining funding associated with the Referendum and we continue to work with them and co-ordinate our efforts.

It is still too soon for me to speculate on the outcome of our investigation.

I am fully aware of the interest in our work and will publicly report on the investigation and any recommendations at its conclusion.

Our investigation will describe for the public, civil society, academics, decision makers and political campaigners the realities of the data driven political campaign. Are the rules for the use of personal data in political campaigns clear? What data sources are used for profiling the electorate for micro targeting? Are there no-go areas in the context of data analytics and social media in elections?

We hope our work will be an important component in a wider ethical discussion about the appropriate balance between the use of new technologies to mobilise the electorate and individual rights.

elizabeth-denham-blogElizabeth Denham was appointed UK Information Commissioner on 15 July 2016, having previously held the position of Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia, Canada.
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39 Responses to Update on ICO investigation into data analytics for political purposes

  1. Not a Kipper says:

    Interesting post and I wish you luck in your investigation.

    However, why single out UKIP and not the other three organisations that notices have been issued to? Is it because they have utilised their legal right to appeal? I’m certainly no UKIPPER, but it’s this sort of thing that they always jump on to illustrate institutional bias.

    Perhaps a sentence along the lines of: ‘The ICO has issued four information notices as part of the investigation to ABCD,HJKL, OPQR and UKIP, one of whom have appealed our notice to the Information Rights Tribunal.’?

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  6. Anonymous says:

    Who where there other 3 information notices issued to? For ‘transparency’ and to avoid any suggestion of political bias you should identify the other recipients of the information notices instead of just highlighting that UKIP were one recipient.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Perhaps you should leave this work to the likes of Byline Media (@Byline_Media) and in particular, J. J. Patrick (@J_amesp), who actually seem to know what they’re doing, and who are already providing mounting evidence of Russian interference.

    This work is important. It’s important you do it soon. Use all the resources available to you, and get them on board.

    Democracy is at stake here.

    • The people you mention cannot though issue a official report and take action against offenders. This is not only interference by Russia most off these companies have links back to America and its Billionaires

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  21. Clive Mackintosh says:

    I think you are doing an excellent job on this and in Elizabeth Denham have the right leadership to get to the bottom of this unsavoury activity.

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  29. K. Hartnell says:

    Keep up the good work which is essential to protect our precious democratic process. Thank you.

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  31. Anonymous says:

    Good to see the work you are doing. The links between AggregateIQ and companies such as Cambridge Analytica and its US parent need reviewing given the potential for the abuse of the power of behavioural analysis and microtargetting particularly when it goes beyond simple demographics and allows accuarte psychological profiling at the individual level mapped to powerful influening technologies informed by Behavioural Science. Look forward to seeing the eventual report. Marc Atherton

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  34. KrishnaR says:

    Keep up the good work

  35. Linda says:

    Great work. Keep it up.

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