Privacy watchdog launches investigation into data use during Brexit campaign

The UK’s data protection watchdog is launching a formal investigation into the use of personal data for political purposes, amid growing concerns about big data’s impact on recent elections including last year’s Brexit vote.

Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, said in a blog post published today that “it is important that there is greater and genuine transparency about the use of such techniques to ensure that people have control over their own data and the law is upheld”.

The Information Commissioner’s Office began “assessing” the risks data analytics pose under data protection laws in March, amid concerns including the reported role played by data analytics company Cambridge Analytica during the Brexit campaign.

The ICO has previously confirmed that it had “concerns” about the company’s reported use of personal data.

Cambridge Analytica, which counts Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon as a former boardmember, has denied any wrongdoing. In March it said it is “completely compliant with UK and EU data law”.

In her statement today, Ms Denham said she has decided to open a formal investigation into the specific topic of using data analytics for political purposes. The investigation will look specifically at practices deployed during the EU referendum campaign, and “potentially also in other campaigns”.

Ms Denham said the investigation will be a “high priority for my office”, and will involve “detailed investigative work and engagement with a range of organisations” within and outside the UK. The ICO will provide an update on the investigation later in the year.

Ms Denham added:

It is understandable that political campaigns are exploring the potential of advanced data analysis tools to help win votes. The public have the right to expect that this takes place in accordance with the law.