Open Rights Group Releases Results of What Political Parties Track

The Open Rights Group is releasing results on what they found about the tracking habits of political parties. It’s thanks to provisions in the GDPR.

During the Canadian election, privacy was put in the spotlight thanks to a Conservative targeted mailer. The mailer assumed that university law professor, Michael Geist, is Jewish. As a result, he received a mailer from the Conservative party telling him and his family that the party stands with Israel. At the time, he wasn’t sure why the party thought this. Unfortunately, political parties fall under a loophole in privacy laws which exempt them from freedom of information requests. Still, he guessed that big data and data mining could be at play anyway.

While the answers might never be forthcoming, Canadians may long for some of the privacy laws in Europe. This is because the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) allows for individuals to request information on what political parties are tracking about them. Taking advantage of the tools afforded under the GDPR, the Open Rights Group (ORG) requested the data political parties are gathering on their constituents. Since technology is likely similar, it offers an interesting look into how political parties gather and use big data to target potential voters with ads and messaging.

After months of researching, the ORG released those results in a post called “Who Do You Think We Are?” From ORG:

Staff and supporters wrote to parties across Great Britain to ask them what personal data they were holding. This gave us a sketch of how data is being used to profile, target and shape voters intentions.

We’re now asking hundreds of people across the UK to send similar data requests, so that we can draw a more detailed portrait.

We want to know what exactly is going on with personal data in politics, and at what scale, and use this knowledge to stop shady data practices that break trust and the law, polarise society and damage democracy.

We’ve created an automated online tool that allows you to easily ask all active UK political parties what data they’re holding on you. With a few simple clicks you can discover what parties think about you and who they’ve decided you are.

Our data requests uncovered some strange and troubling practices. To help you see what your “political data self” might look like, we wanted to share what we’ve learned so far from the three major parties: Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats.

Among the findings is that parties depend on profiling when deciding who gets their messages. Potential voters are generally given scores in different ways to determine likelihood of voting their way. They also determine how likely you are to go out and vote on election day. Some scores even determine how likely you are to switch from supporting one party to another.

From there, parties are also determining stances on issues based on where you live. Additionally, they are determining what your stances are based on who lives near you. ORG suggests that this is not an exact science. Using their own Scotland director, they obtained a table of information on where his stances and vote will likely go. The end result was that the data wound up being incorrect.

Two political parties also use what is known as Mosaic codes. This relies on commercially available data. A lot of this data is derived from social media activity of the targets. All the data gathered is then placed in a table that contains about 500 segments of information. One source used is from Experian.

Political parties say that all this data tracking is in the public interest and necessary to operate in modern politics. ORG points out that all this data tracking requires consent. Unfortunately, consent is not being obtained in all of this. ORG questions whether or not using this data to send polarizing messaging is necessarily healthy for democracy.

In addition, ORG also released a set of tools for UK residents to obtain their political profile. Those tools have been made public for residents to use.

What is interesting in all of this is that this at least offers an idea of what political parties are up to when collecting data on you. Even if you are from a country that isn’t covered by GDPR laws, at the very least, it gives you an idea of what political parties in your country might be collecting on you. After all, a lot of companies are international and they could be used as a source for some of the data collecting.

What’s more is that this could be a great motivating factor for countries to adopt laws that permit potential voters to obtain a copy of the data parties are using to target you for advertising. After all, wouldn’t it be interesting to know what all these analytical companies now know about you from the political perspective?

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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