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UK to investigate use of personal data by political campaigns

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The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is opening an investigation into how political campaigns use personal data to target voters online. The inquiry will ensure that campaigns are complying with electoral laws and do not abuse privacy.

The ICO is responsible for regulating how companies use data, in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998. It can issue fines of up to £500,000 and instigate criminal prosecutions. In October last year, the ICO issued a £400,000 fine to Talk Talk after a cyber attack compromised the personal information of 150,000 customers.

It is understandable that political campaigns should explore the unprecedented outreach that social media advertising allows, the ICO said, but campaigners must comply with regulations.

The ICO will focus its investigation on the use of targeted social media adverts by campaign groups in the run-up to the EU referendum last year, and potentially in other campaigns. Political parties and campaigns, data companies and social media platforms will collaborate with the investigation.

Commentators have drawn attention to the ballooning importance of social media during election campaigns. Targeted social media adverts have been credited with playing decisive roles in the EU referendum and the US presidential election. The Labour Party and the Conservative Party are thought to be planning to spend £1m each on Facebook adverts during the general election campaign.

By analysing individuals’ social media activity to determine their circumstances, interests and opinions, a campaign can tailor adverts to appeal to the user. Social media adverts can also be directed to local areas – such as marginal constituencies – without attributing the spending to local candidates; this type of spending is regulated by the Electoral Commission.

“This is a complex and rapidly evolving area of activity and the level of awareness among the public about how data analytics works, and how their personal data is collected, shared and used through such tools, is low,” said Elizabeth Denham, who was appointed information commissioner last year.

The data analytical tools used to target online adverts had a “significant potential impact” on individuals’ privacy, Denham said.

“It is important that there is 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,” she said.

Although the investigation coincides with the general election campaign, Denham said that this was not specifically planned.

"I would nonetheless remind all relevant organisations of the need to comply with the law," she said.

An update on the investigation is expected later this year.

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