Political parties face ICO investigation over targeting voters on Facebook and Twitter

Political parties face investigation from UK regulator over targeting voters on Facebook and Twitter

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has opened an investigation into how politicians and associated campaigners use data to target voters online across platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who will be leading the review, has noted that while the timing of the announcement coincides with the forthcoming UK General Election the two are not related.

The ICO's investigation will assess the data protection risks arising from the use of data analytics for political purposes, with Denham saying she wants to "shine the light" on how voters’ data is used in digital political campaigns.

Denham said the audit will require engagement with a range of organisations – political parties and campaigns, data companies and social media platforms - as well as "international cooperation".

Earlier this month, Facebook was accused of affording “micro-targeting” abilities to politicians and campaigners looking to attract voters. In an investigation spearheaded by the Observer, claims have emerged around the extent to which unregulated political advertising on Facebook was used to influence the EU referendum. The paper alleged that in the run up to the vote £3.9m was spent by pro-Leave groups with web analytics company AggregateIQ to harvest data about Brits on Facebook and target them with personalised campaigns.

"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 Denham. "What is clear is that these tools have a significant potential impact on individuals’ privacy. 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."

The Drum reached out to Facebook and Twitter, both of which declined to comment on the IOC investigation.

Both platforms have set policies around political advertising on their platforms. In November, Facebook announced it would stop advertisers targeting users by race for ads that focused on housing, employment, and credit opportunities, in response to a report that found that the social network's tools could be used to place discriminatory advertisements.

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Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. Based in London, she writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

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