ICO investigation highlights data privacy conundrum

NB Team

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The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will launch an inquiry into the capture, and potential exploitation, of voters’ personal data for political gain. The ICO began 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. This data identifies swing voters, who are then hit with specific social media messages 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. For example, the disclosure of information over social media during court proceedings or drones encroaching on traditional aviation routes. There is concern around electoral law, which seems to be falling behind technological advancements. This has serious ramifications for us all.

This is underlined by Cambridge Analytica’s impact on the UK referendum on membership of the European Union. But also in the election of reality TV star Donald Trump as U.S. President. The issue of data usage and privacy is, once again, centre stage. The use of big data represents an unprecedented opportunity for many organisations. However, there are many serious questions to ask. There must be an urgent investigation into the use of data to influence the outcome of our democratic processes. New electoral legislation must address any wrongdoing. Moreover, the pace of legislation must increase to match technological development and big data usage.

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. We eagerly await the findings of the ICO’s investigation later this year.

1. http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/big-data-better-donald-trump/1383025