The UK Data Protection Bill currently going through Parliament is set to include an exemption for political parties gathering voter data. In light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, careful thought should be given to the implications of such a wide exemption.
While the exemption would not extend to third parties, in order to safeguard our democracy, we need to give careful consideration to the powers we want our political parties to have over us, our thoughts and political opinions. In a context where we are often unaware of the information we are disclosing about ourselves online, it is absolutely crucial to recognise that we are no longer living in a world where we may choose whether or not to open the door to canvassers.
The collection of data that reveals our political opinions, our emotional states and personalities is not only a threat to privacy, it opens up the possibility for our minds to be used against us with individualised and targeted campaigns designed to manipulate our views in our own homes. This goes straight to the right to freedom of thought- a right protected absolutely in international human rights law.
Political parties argue that there is adequate supervision to address concerns through the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner's Office - but the limitations on the powers of both offices have become apparent as the Cambridge Analytica story has unfolded over the past year. In a blog in Inforrm last year, I argued that a new type of regulatory framework is needed to protect our democracy in an age of technology. Unfortunately, instead of improving the regulatory framework in the political sphere, the Data Protection Bill appears to be chipping away further at hard won data protection standards.
The rise of populism and extremist movements in politics around the world should give us cause to pause and reflect on whether or not we are comfortable with carving out exemptions to the protection of our human rights when it comes to political parties. And we need to be aware that, if we give up our freedom of thought, we may never be able to get it back again.
“Online campaigning is the 21st century’s wild west – and the Cambridge Analytica saga is a very stark reminder that we have to assess how to govern the new terrain,” Willie Sullivan, Electoral Reform Society