One of the less obvious side shows to the defection of Douglas Carswell MP from the Tories to UKIP has been the report that he may be taking his data with him – detailed data about his constituents, it appears, and according to the Daily Mail people at UKIP are ‘purring’ at the prospect of getting hold of the data.
This raises many, many issues – not least data protection issues. The excellent Jon Baines (@bainesy1969 on twitter) has been blogging about political data issues for some time, not least how it appears that political parties ride roughshod over data protection law and yet somehow the Information Commissioner’s Office does not want to get involved. He’s written something today in relation to Douglas Carswell – you can read it here. As Jon Baines explains, there are many legal issues to deal with, including a possible criminal offence.
Even setting the law to one side, there are some very disturbing aspects to this.
The first is a moral or ethical one – when people gave their data to Carswell, or to the local Conservative Party, they presumably intended (if they thought about it at all) to help the Conservative Party – Carswell was, at the time at least, a representative of the Conservative Party, and made many statements of loyalty. Would they be happy for that data then to be used by UKIP, a rival party? Some might have UKIP sympathies, and might well follow Carswell in his defection – but many others might not, and their data is being taken along with those who might defect, and without the chance to object or consent. Data protection law should require this – but in practice it might well fail to produce the results it should. Can we expect a moral or ethical approach from Douglas Carswell on the matter, recognising these issues? I doubt it very much. Morality and ethics are in very short supply in politics even at the best of times. These are very far from the best of times.
The second is a deeper one – it seems to me that we don’t consider nearly enough the impact of data on politics. The most obvious aspect of the Carswell business is the gathering of the data, but the use of that data is perhaps even more important and could have even more impact. I’ve written about this before – most notably in my book, Internet Privacy Rights – but it bears repeating. The use of data for political purposes is something of increasing importance. Obama knew that, and one of his key strategies for re-election was better use of data. This piece ‘How President Obama’s campaign used big data to rally individual voters‘, gives at least a flavour of what Obama did – and the beginning of a sense of what might be possible in the future. Data such as that gathered by Carswell could be aggregated with other data, much of it commercially gathered, and used for profiling in increasingly sophisticated ways. Here’s a brief extract from my book (chapter 10) that hints at what kind of thing can – and almost certainly will – happen in the future. Indeed, some of it is already happening now.
“Imagine, for example, tailored advertisements created for individual ‘swing voters’ (selected automatically through profiling), pointing out a party’s positive steps in the policy areas that are most likely to interest them (also selected automatically), omitting those areas where party policy doesn’t fit, and couching it in a language appropriate to the individual’s ethnic, educational, cultural and linguistic background, illustrated with a few appropriate news TV clips, and playing background music exactly to the individual’s taste and voiced over by an actor that profiling reveals that individual likes? The reverse, of course, about the political party’s opponents – negative campaigning and personal attacks taken to an extreme level. This could be extended from tailored advertisements to whole ‘news’ pages where the ‘news’ provider has a particular political agenda, and also (and more simply) to individual automated emails.”
Now I don’t imagine for a moment that UKIP’s operation is anywhere near as sophisticated as that – right now, most UK political parties seem to be lagging far behind the US in this field – but the ideas and the possibilities ought to be giving us pause for thought. Recent events like the Facebook Experiment, which I’ve blogged about before, show how the internet can be used to manipulate people. Political manipulation is just one of the possibilities. We need to be very careful here – and pay more attention to how our data can be used to manipulate us.