British Liberal Democrats party collecting personal data on “every voter in the country”

Pat Walshe of Privacy Matters digital rights group said he struggled to understand what legal basis the party had for its actions.

The Liberal Democrats, a minor party in the British Parliament, has been caught using some rather aggressive ways to probe and rate political views held by nothing less than – “every voter in the country.”

At least that's what Sky is reporting, explaining that the party is creating profiles of voters to learn about who they plan to vote for in the next election, and also, whether they are in favor of the UK leaving the EU.

The party does this by using “a sophisticated computer model” that pulls in data about voters' preferences from the country's electoral register, phone and doorstep canvassing and online surveys, among other sources – but they also buy “consumer/market research data from third parties.”

This allows for comprehensive and highly nuanced profiling – outputting 42 percentage ratings that give scores on voter traits such as “likelihood of being a Labour voter in 2019,” “likelihood of being a core Lib Dem (Liberal Democrat),” “net difference in likelihood of voting for the Conservative or Brexit Party in 2019,” and “likelihood of being a pragmatic liberal.”

The system also takes into account a person's name to guess their first language and age.

Open Rights Group's Matthew Rice and other voters have been able to ask for their data collected in this way thanks to new transparency laws – and he for one found the practice feeling “quite intrusive.”

“It doesn't feel reflective of what you would want from a democratic culture,” said Rice.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, assert that they are doing UK's voters a favor: it's simply to help them decide who to send campaign leaflets to, they say. The party also rejected the possibility that the data is steered towards something far more useful, like targeted social media ads. However, their own candidate for the London Assembly and “a digital strategist,” Rob Blackie, aid that this was still “technically possible.”

But is the whole thing also technically lawful? UK prohibits the processing of data revealing political affiliation, Sky said – but parties could still do it in case they can prove “substantial public interest.”

To a layperson, targeted leaflet distribution – or indeed, targeted Facebook ads – seem hardly able to qualify as “substantial public interest.”

Experts, meanwhile, think this is “a gray legal area.”

Pat Walshe of Privacy Matters digital rights group said he struggled to understand what legal basis the party had for its actions.

“The information commissioner's office should look at this and investigate again the use of personal data by political parties, because that profiling is deeper and more intense than the average person would expect and understand,” Walshe said.

Didi Rankovic

Didi Rankovic is an experienced online journalist, editor, and translator, with a career spanning over ten years writing for major a English-language website in Serbia, and previously working as translator for international organizations and peacekeepers in the Balkans. Rankovic is passionate about free and open source tech and is a head contributor for Reclaim The Net, focusing on lead stories. [email protected]