The Politics Of Data - Political Campaigning In The Age Of Facebook

Author:Ms Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, Seán O'Reilly and Helena Murphy
Profession:Ronan Daly Jermyn

On 6 November 2018, the Information Commissioner's Office (the "ICO") reported to the UK Parliament on its investigation into the use of data analytics in political campaigns.1 The ICO has deemed this to be the most complex data protection investigation they have ever conducted and the largest investigation of its type by any Data Protection Authority. 30 organisations formed the main focus of the investigation. These included social networking sites (notably Facebook) and data brokers to political parties and other interest groups. The investigation was launched in May 2017 after allegations were made about the 'invisible processing' of individuals' personal data and the micro-targeting of political adverts during the referendum on the UK's continued membership of the EU (the "Referendum"). A separate report was also published by the ICO in July 2018 entitled 'Democracy Disrupted? Personal Information and Political Influence'2, which explores the risks of interference with democratic process stemming from the misuse of personal data.

The primary focus of the ICO's investigation were the events surrounding the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal in 2017. Investigations carried out by The Observer newspaper revealed that Facebook was enabling the processing of personal data of Facebook users for purposes to which users did not consent. An app referred to as "thisisyourdigitallife" which was developed by Dr Aleksandr Kogan and his company Global Science Research, harvested the data of up to 87 million global Facebook users, including one million in the UK. Some of this data was then used by the data broker Cambridge Analytica (the trading name of SCLE Elections Ltd) to assist the Leave.EU campaign during the Referendum by micro-targeting voters. Dr Kogan had previously worked at the Psychometric Centre at Cambridge University where he and other academics had developed a number of apps, including an app called "My Personality" based on the OCEAN3 model. The academics found that by referring to as few as 68 Facebook "likes", they were able to predict with a high degree of accuracy a number of characteristics, including ethnicity and political affiliations.

Facebook's policies in force during the relevant time period permitted third-party apps to obtain user's personal data who installed the app, and in some circumstances, the data of the user's friends. However its policies sought to impose limits on what this data could be used for, namely...

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