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ICO investigating use of data in political campaigns

The investigation will determine if parties breached data protection laws

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has said it will begin a formal investigation to assess whether political groups were using analytics in a way that breached data protection laws.

The announcement follows an initial assessment in March, which looked at the use of analytics to shape political campaigning and contact people based on individual data. It appears that the ICO has gathered enough evidence of data protection violations to merit a full-blown investigation.

"Given the big data revolution, it is understandable that political campaigns are exploring the potential of advanced data analysis tools to help win votes," wrote information commissioner Elizabeth Denham, in a blog post.

"The public have the right to expect that this takes place in accordance with the law as it relates to data protection and electronic marketing," she added.

Political parties are able to contact members of the public to promote political agendas, however to do so falls under the category of 'direct marketing', which is subject to data protection laws. The ICO has responded to complaints in the past where individuals have received direct contact from political parties without their consent.

A recently published report by the Guardian revealed how political parties were targeting messages at voters through their Facebook pages, and tailoring the content based on individual data.

The use of analytics came under the spotlight in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, when it emerged that US-based Cambridge Analytica, which claims to be the"global leader in data-driven campaigning", was involved with the Vote Leave campaign. However this association was never declared to the election watchdog.

The ICO also said that although the use of data analytics by political parties is becoming more frequent, the level of awareness among the public about how their data is collected and shared remains low. "Having considered the evidence we have already gathered I have decided to open a formal investigation into the use of data analytics for political reasons," said Denham.

The investigation will run alongside current investigations into practices deployed during the EU referendum campaign, but could expand beyond that into similar political movements. This investigation will remain a "high priority" for the ICO, according to Denham.

"I am conscious that opening this formal investigation coincides with ongoing campaigning ahead of the General Election," said Denham. "The timing of my decision is unrelated to the current campaign, but I would nonetheless remind all relevant organisations of the need to comply with the law."

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