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Investigation opened into political use of data

Unease over how political parties use data to target voters, online and offline, continues to grow. It’s the focus of Sky News’s ongoing Invisible Election project.

The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s data watchdog, has been assessing its impact since March.

Ms Denham has clearly discovered enough to concern her and has now announced a formal investigation.

This is a significant development. The commissioner has the power to take actions including issuing fines and making criminal prosecutions, if she finds wrongdoing.

Her announcement has other interesting details.

Online data is being used to target voters
Video:Invisible election: How the parties are secretly targeting you

First, the EU referendum is the focus of her investigation (but also other campaigns). Specifically, she references “how companies operating internationally deploy such practices with impact or handling of data in the UK”. In other words: how much effect did foreign companies have in the referendum campaign?

Second, the commissioner notes that her investigation will require “detailed investigative work and engagement with a range of organisations – political parties and campaigns, data companies and social media platforms.”

Facebook, Google and Twitter have been fairly cagey about political advertising on their platforms. And political parties have been able to claim great success in targeting voters, without ever quantifying its impact.

The winners – both in the 2015 general election and the EU referendum – have set a narrative of their digital mastery, without letting anyone peek under the hood.

A formal investigation should change that.

The Information Commissioner said she will present her report “later this year”, but in the meantime, our Invisible Election will try and uncover the digital techniques being used right now.

We need your help, though – find out more here.

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