Britain's data watchdog is investigating whether dodgy data mining swayed the Brexit vote in the UK—as campaigning ramps up in the snap general election.
Elizabeth Denham, the UK's information commissioner, has been digging into political data analytics since March, saying initial evidence compelled her to now open a formal investigation. That will focus on the Brexit referendum, but may take in "other campaigns," she suggested.
The investigation follows a series of stories in The Guardian on data crunching company Cambridge Analytica, alleging the "shadowy global operation" that formerly employed Donald Trump's chief strategist Stephen Bannon influenced the Brexit result, as well as the use of Facebook to "micro target" voters the same way advertisers do.
Denham said it's no surprise that political campaigns are using data analysis to try to hold or win power, but added: "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." Denham told the BBC she's already been in touch with Cambridge Analytica and a connected firm, Aggregate IQ, about the investigation.
Using data to understand what issues would swing votes isn't in itself illegal, but how the data is collected, processed and shared could be. Paul Bernal, lecturer at the University of East Anglia's Law School, said that personal data deemed to be sensitive requires consent before being processed or shared. "They could be creating 'sensitive personal data' without consent, by analysing non-sensitive information to derive it. You need explicit consent to hold or use sensitive personal data - and political views would be included," he noted.
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) that Denham leads is the government's data watchdog, and can issue fines of up to £500,000 to organisations breaking data protection law.
For the ICO, the concern is how the data is collected and used, while the Electoral Commission is interested in how the spending on such efforts is declared, something it's already investigating.
Bernal said the data analytics investigation is overdue. "Many people in the field have been concerned about this for a considerable time," he told Motherboard via email. "Political parties have been gathering data for a long time, and using some highly debatable methods, using things like questionnaires and petitions."
Denham warned campaigners to be wary during the current general election. "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," she said, adding she's written to the major parties with updated guidance.
Bernal warned the investigation needs to be "deep enough" and predict the future capabilities of data analytics. "What is happening now is just a fraction of what will become possible in the future," he said.
If the campaigns did use dodgy data crunching practices, they face a fine of up to £500,000 — but such a weak punishment isn't likely to dissuade politicians and the billionaires backing such companies from using micro-targeting to win elections and keep their grasp on power.