December 03, 2019 | Matthew Rice

What we've learned from asking political parties: Who do you think we are?

Over 2019, Open Rights Group (ORG) have been exercising our rights under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to find out what UK political parties are up to with our personal data. 

Staff and supporters wrote to parties across Great Britain to ask them what personal data they were holding. This gave us a sketch of how data is being used to profile, target and shape voters intentions.

We’re now asking hundreds of people across the UK to send similar data requests, so that we can draw a more detailed portrait. 

We want to know what exactly is going on with personal data in politics, and at what scale, and use this knowledge to stop shady data practices that break trust and the law, polarise society and damage democracy.

We’ve created an automated online tool that allows you to easily ask all active UK political parties what data they’re holding on you. With a few simple clicks you can discover what parties think about you and who they’ve decided you are. 

Our data requests uncovered some strange and troubling practices. To help you see what your “political data self” might look like, we wanted to share what we’ve learned so far from the three major parties: Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats. 

Access the tool here.

All the main parties are dependent on profiling to decide who should get their message

All three major parties are all collecting personal data and doing some kind of internal scoring to target and/or screen out people. 

The Lib Dems are scoring you on things like how likely you are to vote for Brexit, how much of a “pragmatic liberal” you are, what connection you have to other parties, and whether that means you are likely to swing to the Lib Dems.

 

The Conservatives are giving you a “priority” rating which will determine whether to try to encourage you to vote.

Labour are giving you local area, essentially ranking you in massive local league tables based on where they think you stand on issues like housing, taxation, health, austerity, and Brexit.  rankings in their local areas based on issues like housing, taxation, health, austerity, and Brexit. 

For instance our Scotland Director was ranked 12,966 out of a possible 65,801 in his whole constituency on the issue of tax. The effect of this perhaps more relevant on the doorstep than on digital but it shows the level of granularity Labour are trying to ge to with their profiling.

They are also calculating your connection to other parties and likelihood to swing to Labour.

 

 

 

Labour at one point were also inferring ethnicity, it is unclear whether they are still doing this. This is something we hope to confirm or eliminate through further research.

This “trading and grading” of data is deeply troubling. We think it is going to vary based on where you live, whether in a marginal constituency, or who you are, if you belong to a particular community. This would make sense as some kinds of people and some places are of particular importance to the different parties, and with increased importance will come an increased focus on profiling and scoring.

We will be able to explore this theory with more data from a more diverse range of people. This is one of the reasons we we are so keen for lots and lots of people all over the UK to ask parties what personal data they currently hold.

Parties are profiling us based on where we live and who we live near - and that is not an exact science

The Labour party profiled our Scotland Director, Matthew Rice, as likely to be retired, over-65, childless and owning the flat he was registered to vote from.

 

 

None of this was correct. 

We don’t fully know why Matthew was profiled in this way, but we can make some sensible deductions. A key one is that since address is central to every dataset, Matthew’s profile is tied to that of his neighbours and the prevailing demographic in his area.

Parties are still trying to target every voter, not with particularly narrow data but with big wide data that they then tie to everyone in a given area. This isn’t accurate but it is invasive. Because it is also wrong, it creates further issues down the line in political campaigns for Matthew and others that live in the same area but may have different views, values or lifestyles.

What Labour's deducastions mean ultimately is that they are relying on concocted fictions to make decisions about what messaging to send Matthew, or even whether to include him in a campaign. They’re not only wasting both their time and his, but limiting his opportunity to genuinely engage with what their party stands for and how they compare to other political voices.

Parties are deeply reliant on commercial datasets 

Labour and the Conservatives use Mosaic codes in their voter profiles. Mosaic is an incredibly detailed system of household and individual classification owned by corporate data broker company Experian. It is based on geo-demographic data covering 49 million UK adults

According to Experian’s marketing materials, Mosaic codes contain over 500 variables and segmentations. These are based on offline and online data including email addresses and digital and social media searches. 

Mosaic codes are most frequently used for targeted commercial advertising.

 

Did you know that Experian was selling this information to parties?

 

The Liberal Democrats also use commercial datasets to get their scores. We don’t yet know what data sources they rely on and are hoping to find this out through further research.

The parties believe that using personal data like this is necessary for modern politics

 

 

All three parties are publicly relying on the same legal basis for their individual voter profiling: “substantial public interest”. They say that their processing of personal data is in the public interest and “necessary for democratic engagement”.

Political opinions are known in data protection law as “special category data”. This means that they require a higher level of protection than other more general categories of personal data. In our view, “substantial public interest” should not be relied on to profile political opinions.

We say that to process your political opinions (this might include trying to guess your connection to other parties), parties need to have obtained your consent. 

The problem? No party has ever asked any voter for permission before profiling them. 

We also aren’t so sure that using dodgy consumer data to segment the UK population into more and more narrow and questionable categories to then target us with polarising social media ads is necessary or even particularly healthy for democracy.

What do you think?

If you’d like to know who political parties think you are you can ask them yourself using our new online subject access request tool.

You can also use your result to be part of our UK-wide research. We’re undertaking the biggest mapping of use of personal data by political parties ever, and we need you and lots and lots of others to contribute your results to make the research achieve real impact.

Access our online tool here.