Facebook data of UK voters may have been illegally acquired for political purposes, says privacy watchdog

Information Commissioner’s Office discovers potential unlawful act during its ongoing investigation into use of data analytics to micro target voters

May Bulman
Saturday 17 March 2018 16:04
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‘Any criminal and civil enforcement actions arising from the investigation will be pursued vigorously,’ said the Information Commissioner’s Office
‘Any criminal and civil enforcement actions arising from the investigation will be pursued vigorously,’ said the Information Commissioner’s Office

Facebook data of Britons may have been illegally acquired for political purposes, the UK’s privacy watchdog has said.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said it is investigating the circumstances in which people’s data may have been obtained and used unlawfully, as part of its ongoing investigation into the use of data analytics to micro target voters.

The watchdog launched its formal inquiry into political parties’ use of data analytics to target voters in May last year amid concerns that Britons’ privacy could be put at risk by new campaign tactics, with a particular focus on the EU referendum campaign.

A statement released by the watchdog on Saturday said: “We are investigating the circumstances in which Facebook data may have been illegally acquired and used.

“It’s part of our ongoing investigation into the use of data analytics for political purposes, which was launched to consider how political parties and campaigns, data analytics companies and social media platforms in the UK are using and analysing people’s personal information to micro target voters.

“It is important that the public are fully aware of how information is used and shared in modern political campaigns and the potential impact on their privacy.”

The watchdog said it was continuing to invoke all of its powers and pursuing a number of live lines of inquiry. “Any criminal and civil enforcement actions arising from the investigation will be pursued vigorously,” added the ICO.

The news comes after a whistleblower revealed that the British data firm described as “pivotal” in Donald Trump’s presidential victory was behind a “data grab” of more than 50 million Facebook profiles.

A former employee at Cambridge Analytica – a company headed at the time by Mr Trump’s key adviser Steve Bannon – told the Observer it had used personal information taken without authorisation to build a system that could profile individual US voters, in order to target them with personalised political advertisements.

Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner, said in December that the inquiry was “complex and far-reaching”, involving more than 30 organisations including political parties and campaigns, data companies and social media platforms.

She said that while a number of organisations had freely cooperated with her office, others were “making it difficult”, and that in some instances they had been unable to obtain the specific details of work that contributed to the referendum campaign.

“I will be using every available legal tool and working with authorities overseas to seek answers on behalf of UK citizens,” she said at the time.

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