Data firms face scrutiny as parties gear up for election

parliament_2The data industry is set to play its biggest role yet in driving advertising and political canvassing in the run up to the General Election but will be under greater scrutiny than ever from regulators, privacy campaigners, the media and consumers, amid claims that some of the main parties are already potentially in breach of GDPR.

With the House of Lords likely to sanction the December 12 national vote today, the Information Commissioner’s Office will no doubt be on “red alert” but it will not be the only one taking a keen interest in the election.

As a result of its year-long investigation into the use of personal data – triggered by the Cambridge Analytica scandal – the ICO claimed to have uncovered a “disturbing disregard for voters’ personal privacy” on the part of 30 organisations, including social media platforms, political parties, data brokers, and credit reference agencies.

However, of the 30 organisations cited, only Facebook (£500,000), Emma’s Diary (£140,000), Vote Leave (£40,000), Leave.EU and insurance firm Eldon (£120,000) have faced ICO fines and some of these are going through the costly appeals process.

The only penalty that the now defunct Cambridge Analytica has faced has been for parent company SCL Elections, which paid just £21,000 – including over £6,000 in costs – for failing to comply with an enforcement notice issued by the data regulator.

The ICO has also written warning letters to 11 political parties and notices compelling them to agree to audits of their data protection practices, although it is not known whether this has been completed.

Even so, this is unlikely to deter privacy groups or some sections of the media. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, the Labour Party has already built a “fearsome data targeting machine” that will power its election campaign.

The paper claims that Labour could already be breaching privacy laws by using Experian to profile British voters in order to target them with social media ads.

It cites “internal instruction manuals” that show how the party is analysing more than 400 pieces of data about British voters and assigning each one to demographic profiles.

Meanwhile, Sky News has revealed the Liberal Democrats are rating voters’ political preferences on 37 categories, including which party they would vote for in the election and whether they were a Remainer or Leaver.

Some “experts” believe these databases are in breach of GDPR because they offer voters no opt-out, although others argue that these are standard data profiling techniques that have been used by big brands for years and, as they are anonymised, do not break privacy laws.

An Experian spokesman said: “We’re committed to always doing the right thing – obtaining, processing, and using data compliantly and responsibly. Anyone can opt out of our marketing database at any time and we make it very easy for them to do so.”

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