Micro-targeting: Privacy is on the agenda again, but is anyone paying attention?

Andy Halsall News, Politics, Technology

Privacy and political micro-targeting in the UK: The doorstep versus data-mining.

In the same week that we find out that the the UK’s Information Commissioner has launched an investigation into the way political parties target voters through social media, Mozilla has released the results of its privacy survey.

The two bring the ability of businesses and political parties to track and target individuals into sharp focus, as well as showing that our perception may not entirely reflect the bargain that we strike when we share data, intentionally or otherwise, online.

The Mozilla survey was carried out over the last month and involved 30,000 respondents in the Mozilla community from countries around the world, including the US & UK. The results are a not surprising, but they do underline the problems people face in protecting their security and privacy when they are online.

Some of the results won’t shock anyone who has been interested in privacy or digital issues, for example almost a third of the survey participants said they knew either very little, or nothing at all, about encryption. That’s not new, most people don’t encrypt even quite sensitive emails or other communications. It’s only when encryption is on by default that it seems to get wide adoption at all.

However people clearly do understand how much, or indeed how little control we have over our own data. The survey showed that only 1 in 10 participants felt that they had ‘total control’ over their personal information online, while almost a third felt that they didn’t have any control of their personal data at all.

When it came to threats to their privacy and security, it seems that the notion of black hat hackers breaking into their computers is still higher on most people’s lists than online stalkers. 80% of the survey respondents feared being hacked, yet far fewer, only 61% of respondents are concerned about being tracked by advertisers.

The ICO’s investigation becomes very relevant when you consider that perceived lack of control over our data, and the incorrect weighting of the risks we face online.

In March the ICO announced that they were conducting an assessment of the data protection risks arising from the use of data analytics, including the data used for political purposes. Clearly that assessment raised some flags given the announcement today that the ICO will open a formal investigation.

“This investigation is a high priority for my office in our work to uphold the rights of individuals and ensure that political campaigners and companies providing services to political parties operate within UK law. We will provide an update later in the year.” Elizabeth Denham - UK Information Commissioner
It’s noteworthy that the investigation won’t be restricted to the recent EU referendum campaigns where the use of data analytics and micro-targeting have been raised as issues, but that it will potentially also look at other campaigns too. It also won’t be a purely UK affair, the ICO has made it clear that ‘given the transnational nature of data the investigation will involve exploring how companies operating internationally deploy such practices’.

But should we be concerned? After all as with targeted advertising for businesses, political parties are trying to engage with people to sell them an idea, and convert that engagement into a vote. If detailed tracking that potentially goes well beyond anonymised demographic data, enables them to better engage and inform voters then surely that is a good thing?

The answer is almost certainly yes we should be concerned, and no, it’s quite likely not a good thing.

Even if you accept the potential benefits of political parties targeting individuals, potentially on the basis of an assumed voting intention, you can’t ignore that people have almost certainly not given a fully informed consent for their data to be used in such a way.

As digital tracking and the associated marketing becomes more sophisticated, and as our social media, search and online bubbles become more and more effective and impermeable, the need for people to understand the bargains they are striking with service providers becomes more acute.

If we compare the digital approaches reportedly being used by the large political parties to traditional canvassing the differences become very obvious. It’s far clearer what is at stake in a face-to-face discussion and the data collected in a direct conversation between voter and party worker may have data protection implications, but at least the purpose and the fact that information is being gathered is mostly clear.

What’s more, you can quite easily ‘opt out’ of handing over data on the doorstep.

In short, people need to understand what is being done with their individual data. We all need to know when that data is being used to target us, and when it is being used to sway our views, or support an argument. The Mozilla privacy survey shows that we are quite a long way off that.

What the ICO investigation brings will shape the future of digital political campaigning should set the boundaries for deep, targeted analytics supporting marketing.



You can find more on Mozilla’s privacy survey, including the underlying data here



Andy Halsall
Andy is a commentator, analyst and campaigner with a background in intelligence analysis and a focus in crowd-sourcing, policy, media and security. He has 15 years of experience working on the sharing economy, emerging technology trends and has created and led national, issues based media campaigns.

He leads on Open Intelligence Facilitation and Advocacy offers.

Working internationally he has negotiated on positions with partners in Germany, Spain, France, Australia the US and Canada, as well as working with commercial, governmental and academic partners in the UK to deliver projects and provide analysis.

Andy has appeared on television and radio, including the BBC, on subjects ranging from data protection, security, policy and politics, and has written for publications including the Guardian and Public Service Europe.