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Political parties stand by voter profiling in new law



Privacy campaigners claim clauses in Data Protection Bill leave scope for abuse of personal data

Britain’s political parties have been accused of giving themselves powers to use personal data to find out how people are likely to vote, despite the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The Data Protection Bill will allow the “profiling” of voters to “infer information about the political opinions of an individual”, privacy campaigners are protesting.

All the major parties have agreed the move, arguing it simply clarifies their widely recognised right to canvas voters in order to target likely supporters. But critics claim technological advances now enable such data to be mined to discover people’s opinions without their active consent.

Ailidh Callander, a lawyer at the group Privacy International, told The Independent that “no meaningful justification” had been given for the powers in the legislation.

“This is open to abuse by political parties and those working for them and can be used to facilitate targeted and exploitative political advertising,” she warned.

Reason for secrecy

Paul Bernal, a data protection expert at the University of East Anglia (UAE) Law School, said: “There's a reason that we have secret ballots in elections and that we don't keep a record of how people voted.”

The controversy has blown up over the way Parliament will update data protection laws that were put in place 20 years ago.

A schedule in the new bill will give additional rights to process personal data to “elected representatives”, or “a person acting with the authority of such a representative”, gained from fundraising, surveys and casework. They will be granted to MPs, MEPs, members of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly, and to local councillors.

The law will say data should not be processed if the person involved is likely to suffer “substantial damage or substantial distress”, of if they have opted out. But critics say such exemptions require people to choose to intervene – when they may not even know the data has been collected about them.

The Cambridge Analytica controversy has shown that even apparently innocent data, such as the music a person likes, can be used to work out their political opinions, they point out.

Technology effect

Privacy International said the proposed new rules are similar to the 1998 act, but fail to recognise that “technology and data processing in the political arena have moved on”.

They would allow private firms, under contract to political parties, to “process personal data revealing political opinions for a wide range of purposes” without the explicit consent of the person concerned.

However, the Government, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have defended the schedule in the bill, which is intended to reach the statute book next month.

Image from League of Women Voters of California, CC BY 2.0 through flickr

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