Who: Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)
When: 23 June 2017
Law stated as at: July 2017
The use of personal data for targeted online advertising is nothing new. However, in recent years, political parties have seen it as a new weapon in their armoury and have increasingly adopted aggressive digital marketing strategies as part of their electoral campaigns. These activities have not gone unnoticed and, in recent months, the ICO has issued warnings, updated guidance and opened investigations into the practices implemented by political parties and the third party companies that assist them.
In March of this year, it was reported that the ICO was conducting a “wide assessment of the data-protection risks arising from the use of data analytics, including for political purposes, and will be contacting a range of organisations“, including Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analyica’s rise to fame came as its activities helped Donald Trump win the presidential election. However, following its possible involvement with the ‘Leave’ campaign during the EU referendum, it has now found itself subject to an investigation by the ICO into its use of personal data.
Following this, and an increase in the number of complaints received from members of the public, the ICO issued a warning, in April, to all major political parties in advance of this year’s general election. The purpose was to remind them of the need to comply with both data protection and electronic marketing laws, provide updated guidance on the use of data analytics in electoral campaigning, and invite key individuals to attend a briefing session. Key concerns raised by the public included:
- the use of surveys intending to gain support for campaigns;
- the sending of unsolicited SMS messages;
- the use of automated calls; and
- the sharing of personal data between national and local organisations.
More recently, in May 2017, after considering the evidence gathered from the assessment commenced in March, the ICO announced it was opening a formal investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes. An ICO statement, issued by the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Dunham, stated the investigation will ensure that “political campaigners and companies providing services to political parties operate within UK law.”
The ICO’s message was clear – rapid developments and improvements in data analytics have created greater opportunities for campaigning, but such activities carry a high level of risk and those employing them must adhere to regulatory requirements. Following this, in June, an investigation by Channel 4 centred on certain activities adopted by communications firm Blue Telecoms, on behalf of the Conservative Party. The ICO has now opened up a line of enquiry into the marketing campaigns conducted from a certain call centre used by the party.
Why this matters:
Any handling of an individual’s personal data requires the data controller, which may include MPs and their offices, to comply with data protection rules including, amongst other things, the need to be transparent about the use of such data, respect the individual’s preferences, and only use it in ways which are compatible with the purposes informed to the individual.
It is important in a democratic society for MPs and campaigners to engage with the electorate and to keep them informed. However, the ICO has demonstrated that these groups are not above the law and, whilst they may think their activities are in the public interest, they cannot escape compliance with data protection and marketing laws.