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How are UK political parties using your personal data to gain election votes?

Illustration image of party leader of conservatiove and party leader of labour competing. As they both shoot branded arrows by facebook , at consumer targets

Key takeaways from this blog: 

  • Political parties collect a huge amount of personal data.
  • This includes employment status, family structure, income, educational achievements, and more.
  • Both the Conservative and Labour parties buy information from data brokers, companies that collect personal date from websites.
  • The ICO appears to be concerned about this, and have a full report here.
  • With Rightly, you can delete your data from UK political parties or simply find out what they know about you.

How are UK political parties using personal data to gain election votes?

In November 2020, the Information Commissioner's Office published the results of its audit on how the major UK political parties’ comply with data laws. The audit is a follow up to the ICO’s 2018 report ‘Democracy Disrupted?’, which raised concerns about parties’ lack of transparency and inappropriate use of individuals’ data.

The proliferation of problematic and illegal political campaign data practices had been highlighted in 2018 by investigations into Cambridge Analytica’s influence on Donald Trump’s election success (read our summary here), and the use of targeted advertising by the Vote Leave campaign. These investigations raised complaints about the data practises of online platforms, like Facebook, and political consultancies. 

The ICO audit’s focal point was political parties, and the results are surprising.

What data can political campaigns collect?

Political parties are allowed to use the data of millions of people to help their campaigns. They have a right to access the electoral register - referred to by the ICO as the ‘spine’ onto which a lot more detailed data can be grafted. In fact, even if you've opted to register anonymously, political campaigns still have access to the full electoral register. 

It's common for parties to collect data from you in person, like when a canvasser knocks on the door or gives you a call. They can also collect and analyse all publicly available data such as census data, election results data, polling data, social housing data, and other data sets compiled by the government. These are all fairly straightforward and the access to such data is simple. 

What makes it trickier, however, is when Big Data gets added to the mix. 

Use of third parties to acquire voter data 

Both Labour and Conservative parties tend to use third-parties, usually referred to in privacy notices as data brokers. Data brokers create and sell data profiles, to help targeted advertising

A third party data broker, like Experian - broker of choice for both Labour and Conservatives - will tease personal data out of your digital behaviour on apps and platforms, like Facebook and Amazon. They're then able to cross reference this with public records. Once they’ve gathered up your data and outlined your personality, they can sell this on as an easy-to-read bundle of predictions about the kind of person you are. Ultimately, these predictions are used to help a party convince you to vote for them.

As a third party data broker, they have absolutely no direct relation to you and do not own the site that you’re interacting with. When you consent to Facebook sharing your data, it’s quite likely that they’re sharing it with a number of different data brokers. And once it’s shared with them, they’re free to sell it on to political parties, and vice versa. 

Tell UK political parties to delete my data

Data brokers 

The audit found that the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats had obtained commercially available data about individuals - some estimated and a lot, factual. These three parties also paid for access to other UK-wide databases. 

The data that Labour and the Conservatives bought is extensive. It included estimates of:

  • employment status
  • income
  • presence or absence of children in the household age
  • family structure
  • level of educational achievement 
  • onomastic data (looking at names to guess other characteristics) to identify gender
  • geodemographic segmentation (by postcode, by household, and by person). This was not used for direct marketing but to formulate a better understanding of voter patterns and interests. 

The Conservatives additionally purchased further onomastic data (names), identifying country of origin, ethnic origin and religion.They paid for access to the National Deceased Register, and bought telephone numbers from suppliers. 

The Liberal Democrats bought commercial data, estimating a selection of voter ‘attributes’. The data estimated included an age approximate, and the likelihood of the individual reading a newspaper.

The SNP, DUP, Plaid Cymru and UKIP did not source any commercially available data.

How can I protect my personal data from targeted political advertising? 

One of the problems that the ICO highlighted in its report is that, at the time of the audit, none of the major political parties had given the names and details of the third parties they had sourced data from. 

This makes it especially hard for individuals to submit requests to the right company to delete their data.

Lucy Pardon from Privacy International points out in this BBC news article that 'the data broker industry is so complex and while the GDPR gave people more rights over their data, how are you supposed to exercise those rights if you don't even know a company is collecting your data and profiling you?'

Use Rightly to delete your data from a data broker

To combat this problem, political parties must be more proactive in ensuring that the data brokers they use have got the full and informed consent of individuals to share their personal data for political messaging purposes.

Is targeted advertising changing our political arena? 

Yes, although you could say that it's already changed. According to the audit, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats paid for micro-targeted marketing campaigns on Facebook. The parties manually created ‘custom audiences’ for advertising based on large voter databases and various characteristics, namely, age or gender, location, interests and behaviours. They even matched individuals’ telephone numbers from their databases with contact details on Facebook accounts. 

It's important to note that Plaid Cymru, the SNP, DUP and UKIP also used some social media platforms to engage with voters; but they did not use targeting. They relied solely on the organic spread of content through their supporters.

What can be done?

Like any organisation handling personal data, the more transparent, the better. There is clearly a lot of room for improvement here. For example, the audit notes that it wasn’t always clear on the major parties’ websites and privacy notices that personal data would be used in this way. The audit recommends that ‘parties should tell voters that their email addresses will be used to match them on social media for the purposes of showing them political messaging’. 

Legislation like GDPR has meant that over the last few years there have been leaps forward in consumer rights over their personal data. However, many organisations use both the services of data brokers and data profiling itself, not just political ones. With this in mind, it's more important than ever to make sure you're in control of your personal data.

For further information on this topic, you can get in touch, or read the ICO's full audit here.