11:42, May 17 461 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-17 11:42:03
Inquiry launched into how UK parties target voters through social media

The information commissioner’s office has launched an investigation into the way UK political parties target voters through social media platforms.

The investigation “into the use of data analytics for political purposes” was announced by Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, and will go further than the watchdog’s current activity exploring practices deployed during the European Union referendum campaign.

“Given the big data revolution it is understandable that political campaigns are exploring the potential of advanced data analysis tools to help win votes,” she said. “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.”

She also warned the political parties and other campaign groups operating during the current general election to be sure to operate within UK law.

Labour and the Conservatives are understood to have set aside about £1m each to spend on advertising directly to voters through Facebook. This allows them to target specific messages to groups of voters defined by data that they have already given through their activity on the social media platform.

“Shining a light on such practices will require detailed investigative work and engagement with a range of organisations – political parties and campaigns, data companies and social media platforms, as well as international cooperation,” the commissioner said.

“This investigation is a high priority for my office in our work to uphold the rights of individuals and ensure that political campaigners and companies providing services to political parties operate within UK law.”

The information commissioner’s office has also circulated updated guidance to the political parties warning them that the complexity of techniques used for gathering personal data on voters from social media and processing it for campaigning purposes does not excuse them from obligations under the Data Protection Act to tell people what it is doing with the data.

It said: “People ... may well not be aware of how other data about them can be used and combined in complex analytics. If a political organisation is collecting data directly from people, eg via a website, or obtains it from another source, it has to tell them what it is going to do with the data … It cannot simply choose to say nothing, and the possible complexity of the analytics is not an excuse for ignoring this requirement.”

Denham also said that “given the transnational nature of data, the investigation will involve exploring how companies operating internationally deploy such practices”.