Data and politics…

CarswellOne 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.

8 thoughts on “Data and politics…

  1. There is some irony to be found in this post in that just below it I find a personalised ad!
    I think that you are taking the wrong tack on this, and your posts end up wooly as a result.
    The problem in writing about the internet is three fold:-
    1. It is rapidly changing
    2. It is, to a high degree, amorphous
    3. It is poorly understood by most readers and commentators

    To which
    1. There is some possibility of shaping it to facilitate enablement of people
    2. Taking 1. and adding there is an intrinsic need in people(s) to find pattern, patterns can be encouraged subliminally. But patterns can also be surfaced, discussed and altered. What patterns of behaviour are needed, with what support, to disable or undermine excessive mass control? See 3. For what I mean.
    3. It is unhelpful to go all paranoid about the internet. I’m not thinking about that. I can explain by referring to a conversation I had last night with a union representative for the academics’ union (forgive me I don’t remember it’s appellation). Why privatisation was the broad topic. The reply was that hedge funds see very large profits in it. Just to put this in, their path to those profits feather bedded by our taxes.
    I’m not for the moment debating the veracity of this. But what I am pointing out is that there is a very well known principal of capitalism that would be expected to be at work here:ownership of the means of production combined with the maximisation of profit. No doubt, there is much to debate about those concepts, but I suggest they be applied to understanding the internet, too.
    In other words, in this context, the technology can be used as a form of mystification, while there are well known ideas that are as valid in this area as in any other.

    This highlights something else in this blog post:the appeal to law and ethics.
    Why is it that, when it comes to the internet, ethics and regard for the law (in a broad sense) come into question?
    The missing part of understanding is the economic angle. The angle of exploitation and shoddy practice.
    This always should be highlighted. Because we need institutions capable of helping to defend us from this.
    At the moment these institutions are being dismantled, the internet playing its part.
    But things could be very different, with the internet playing its part there instead.

    I cannot remember when it was I saw Eric Schmidt interviewed on TV, not so long ago. He made a repeated slip, referring to Google as “My country.”

    You know there is a desperate question of why he made that slip. That he wants us to know he thinks like that.

    1. If you’d read more of my work, you’d know that the economic element is fundamental to how I understand and approach the way the internet works – perhaps I should have made that clearer in this individual post. Indeed, it has a very direct implication to politics: the ability to utilise the personalisation/manipulation abilities that data allows requires ‘big data’ and deep pockets. It’s another way in which money talks – and money manipulates.

      And I’m afraid you’ve missed the point if you think I’m ‘appealing’ to law and ethics. I’m not. I’m pointing out that there is an ethical aspect to this – but that this ethical aspect will almost certainly be ridden roughshod over. Similarly, there’s a legal element to this – but that legal element is highly unlikely to come into play. Though Carswell might be guilty of an offence, the chances that he’d ever be charged with it are minimal.

  2. Park of the problem is that, on the whole, the Conservative Party’s use of data – particularly at local level – is incredibly unsophisticated. Senior party figures are trying to change that and drag the party kicking and screaming into the 21st century in this respect, but a lot of local associations have barely moved on from floppy disks and dBase. Douglas Carswell is notably one of the few exceptions (and one of the more notable exceptions) to the general rule, and has put a lot of effort into gathering and organising data. But what that means in practice is that his data has almost all been gathered and collated by himself and his staff rather than by the local association. So it’s not unreasonable that he feels he owns it and has the right to take it with him to a different party.

    Now, I’m inclined to agree that this belief is probably wrong, at least as far as the letter of the law is concerned. But the number of people within the Conservative Party who both understand the issue and care about it is probably rather small. And those who do understand and care may well feel that taking some official action over it (such as a complaint to the ICO) is likely to be politically counter-productive. The last thing they want to do is highlight the fact that Douglas Carswell is more sophisticated than the average Conservative MP, and equally they want to avoid the appearance of vindictiveness. It may well turn out to be better to let sleeping dogs lie.

  3. It’s an interesting point about what people’s expectations are when they give data to their local MP.

    Legally, there are two different scenarios – MP as MP and MP as political party representative and a good, legal MP remembers to keep the two distinct (including keeping the resulting data separate).

    In my experience helping MPs with such issues, even when they do this really well, they often find the public at times gets confused or complains because (understandably) most members of the public don’t think about such distinctions.

    In as much as there is a default, I think it’s the people expect data given to an MP won’t go to a political party too – so the expectations are usually the opposite of what you suggest when you write “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”. But of course a lot depends on the specific context of any data handover.

  4. P.S. I should have said in that last para that what “I think” is based on experience of helping MPs deal with correspondence from the public asking about why they’ve done certain things with their data, threatening complaints etc – i.e. it’s based on the evidence I’ve seen of the public expressing their views.

    1. You may well be right – but the context could vary a lot. Many people’s primary loyalty is to the party, so if they’re filling in questionnaires, for example, that would be for the party. It’s a grey area – and I think it does need clearing up.

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