The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has recently revealed that it will begin an inquiry into how voters’ personal data is being captured and exploited for political gain. The UK privacy watchdog triggered the investigation after it emerged that Cambridge Analytica, a technology company partly owned by U.S. billionaire Robert Mercer, had played a key role in both the UK Brexit referendum and the U.S. Presidential elections.
Cambridge Analytica utilises data analysis to develop sophisticated profiles of individuals to predict how they might vote. The breakdown of this data can be used to identify swing voters – in order to target them with specific social media messages designed to sway their vote. Indeed, in February 2016 Cambridge Analytica’s Chief Executive, Alexander Nix, discussed how the company had helped to “supercharge Leave.EU’s social media campaign by ensuring the right messages are getting to the right voters online”.1
For a quite some time the development of technology has been outpacing legislation. This has been seen across many sectors. For example, the disclosure of information over social media during court proceedings or drones encroaching on traditional aviation routes. Particular concerns have been voice around electoral law though as it falling behind technological advancement has serious ramifications for us all.
This has been demonstrated by Cambridge Analytica’s impact on the UK referendum on membership of the European Union and election of reality TV star Donald Trump as U.S. President. The issue of the use of data and privacy is, once again, centre stage. If an organisation was caught opening someone’s personal letters and using that information – it would face the full force of the law. While the use of big data represents an unprecedented opportunity for many organisations; there are many serious questions to be asked. If data is being used to influence the outcome of general elections and constitutional referendums – then this must be investigated as a matter of urgency. If any wrongdoing is identified, then new electoral legislation introduced to address it. Moreover, the pace of legislation must be increased to match the development of technology and use of big data.
Any organisation, including those in PR and comms, has a responsibility to safeguard the privacy of the public’s online data and not use it to nefarious gain. This issue of big data, privacy and legislation are issues that will play out for the foreseeable future – as technology develops and corporate big data usage grows. The findings of the ICO’s investigation later this year will be eagerly awaited.