Ballot Boxing: When Politics Meets Data Rights

14th February 2020 Media Law

Since the dawn of civilisation, managing and exchanging information has been humanity’s killer app.

From the earliest writing (tax receipts on clay tablets in the Babylonian Empire) to the modern behemoths of Silicon Valley, power brokers have treasured information. It’s the organising force that makes civilisation progress. Knowledge is indeed power, as the saying goes.

Information is as old as time, but our ability to manipulate and use it evolves in leaps and bounds. Clay tablets gave way to more mobile animal skins and papyrus. Styluses gave way to printing presses. Printing presses gave way to telecoms. And telecoms combined with silicon chips bring us into the modern era. At every one of these leaps and bounds, the powerful have sought to harness (and sometimes to stem) the new technology and its power.

During this evolution, information about “ordinary” people has always been useful to bureaucrats. It can be used to inform decisions about numerous issues such as taxation decisions, military resources and economic assets.

Public censuses have become invaluable sources of historical data because rulers have seen value in collecting data. The Domesday Book recorded nuggets of information for the Norman rulers of England. Equally, going back even further, the Bible records a certain census taking place in a little town called Bethlehem. Interestingly, according to recent reports, the proliferation of personal data across UK government means that the 10-yearly UK census, due to take place in 2021, may be our last. The need for the modern census has become redundant apparently.

Wind forward to the 21st century and the principle has not changed; we just got better at tracking, managing and using (aka “processing”) more and more data. And in the age of democracies, the information collected about voters has turned modern politicians into today’s versions of William the Conqueror and Emperor Augustus: equally interested in their citizens’ personal data.

One glance at news coverage at home and abroad over the last few years shows an interesting and at times difficult relationship developing between politics and data.

In recent days, we’ve seen Sir Keir Starmer, the leading candidate to replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, being accused (or rather his campaign team being accused) by his own party colleagues of hacking into an internal database containing a list of party members.

That, in turn, led to suggestions that the very individuals making such allegations might find themselves on the wrong end of a hefty fine from the Information Commissioner's Office for failing to protect party members’ data.

It’s not just the Opposition whose information security has become a topic of debate. Government departments frequently appear at the top of the ICO’s data breach notification reports.

Taking a broader view, the use of personal data in potentially influencing the Brexit vote has equally become a topic of controversy, leading to the company at the centre of the scandal, Cambridge Analytica, closing its doors for good due to the intensity of global criticism. The mystery and suspicion around precision “micro-targeting”, using voters’ own data to influence their political views, appears so surgical that it risks seriously eroding trust in democratic processes.

The UK experience is not unique. The same sensitive issues regarding data security are confronting, for example, Likud, the party of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which reportedly exposed the details of six million voters.

Data has played its part in US politics too. We cannot forget the infamous breach of Democratic Party IT systems in March 2016 which was blamed on Russian hackers and may or may not have cost Hillary Clinton the chance of beating Donald Trump to the White House.

What these episodes and others illustrate is that politicians across the globe now understand what business has appreciated for some time: having access to and being able to process huge volumes of personal data in digital form is important for the prospects of any commercial or political venture. But it creates risks. Politicians deal not in hard currency but in something much more malleable: trust. And trust lies at the heart of data privacy law and citizens’ attitudes to the use and abuse of their data.

Data has great value, but it also requires careful protection and ethical use.

The relationship between data and politics has a long way to run.

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Nick McAleenan is a Partner located in Manchester in our Media & Reputation Management; Data Protection & Privacy department

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