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Open Rights Group Condemns UK Political Party Data Profiling

Michael Behr

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UK Political Parties

The extent and accuracy of the use of personal data by political parties to profile voters has raised concerns.

Four privacy campaigners have filed complaints to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about the data profiling practices of political parties, according to the Open Rights Group (ORG).

The complaints ask the ICO to confirm just how far parties can go in their data profiling. They raise concerns about Labour, the Liberal Democrat and Conservative and Unionist parties’ position that any data profiling they consider necessary to win an election is permitted.

According to the ORG, the four complainants all gained access to their personal data in 2019. Their profiles aimed to predict, through a combination of commercial data and analytics, their political opinions on, amongst others, Brexit, taxation, housing, the Scottish Parliament, and austerity.

In legal correspondence over the course of 2020 asking the parties why this data was necessary, the individuals were met with similar justifications from each party – that it was necessary to profile voters in this way to win seats and elections and that this was the test the political parties needed to satisfy.

The individuals are concerned that this risks a race to the bottom for political parties in achieving their goals, leaving voters privacy at risk of significant intrusion.

Pascal Crowe, Data and Democracy Project Officer for the ORG and one of the complainants, said: “There must be limits on how much personal data a political party can gather on each voter. I doubt many people would find it necessary to being racially profiled by the Conservatives. This complaint is designed to limit this kind of creepy and unethical behaviour.”

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The use of personal data by political parties has come under the spotlight since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. A previous report from the ORG from June warned that political parties are using their stored data on millions of voters to profile them.

According to the report, political parties are attempting to create voting profiles “en masse” to predict how people will vote. The report added that many people who reviewed their profiles claimed they were wholly or mostly inaccurate.

In addition, a recent ICO audit warned that UK political parties were not doing enough to protect data and promote transparency. A subsequent report warned that this attitude was undermining democracy and called on the UK’s seven biggest parties to improve their data handling policies.

Matthew Rice, Scotland Director for ORG and one of the complainants, said: “One year on from the general election and after months of discussions, we need to see clarity.

“The parties argue that as long as it helps them win seats, our personal data is fair game. That position is unacceptable. We must see clear and transparent limits to what data profiling a political party can do to voters.

“We are now turning to the Information Commissioner with this question. The answer will be significant for all voters in the United Kingdom.”

Michael Behr

Senior Staff Writer

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