After a small Victoria company played an outsized role in the Brexit vote, government information and privacy watchdogs in British Columbia and Britain have been consulting each other about the use of social media to target voters based on their personal data.
The U.K.’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, announced last week that she is launching an investigation into “the use of data analytics for political purposes.”
The investigation will look at whether political parties or advocacy groups are gathering personal information from Facebook and other social media and using it to target individuals with messages, Denham said.
B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner confirmed it has been contacted by Denham.
“We are in preliminary discussions with the Information Commissioner’s Office in the U.K. regarding circumstances where organizations manage information in multiple jurisdictions,” spokesperson Erin Beattie said in an email.
“Given that information knows no boundaries, we frequently consult with our colleagues in other jurisdictions regarding areas of potential mutual interest,” she said.
Prior to becoming the U.K.’s information commissioner last July, Denham was B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner. A spokesperson in her office couldn’t immediately be reached by email.
Britain is in an election campaign leading up to a June 8 vote. Denham has warned the parties that they could be breaking U.K. law if they are sending people political messages based on their individual data.
The issue became prominent in the U.K. after Brexit campaign disclosures showed that Vote Leave campaigners had spent £3.5 million — about $5.75 million Canadian — with a company called AggregateIQ, run by CEO Zack Massingham in downtown Victoria.
That was more than the Leave side paid any other company or individual during the campaign and about 40 per cent of its spending ahead of the June referendum that saw Britons narrowly vote to exit the European Union.
According to media reports, AggregateIQ develops advertising to be used on sites including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, then targets messages to audiences who are likely to be receptive.
Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings is quoted praising the firm on AggregateIQ’s website. “Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ,” he wrote. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”
The Tyee reported in March on the links between AggregateIQ and SCL Group, whose website says it has worked to influence election outcomes in 19 countries. Its associated company in the U.S., Cambridge Analytica, has worked on a wide range of campaigns, including Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
“Given the big data revolution, it is understandable that political campaigns are exploring the potential of advanced data analysis tools to help win votes,” Denham said in the Guardian. “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.”
While voters would likely accept receiving political messages based on broad characteristics like where they live or their age, it would be illegal for campaigns or companies to use individuals “very precise digital trails” to target them, she said.
Denham has already contacted Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ, the paper reported.
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