Philip Cao

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Transparent Use of Personal Data Critical to Election Integrity in UK

4 min read

Mike HughesEditor’s note: The ISACA Now blog is featuring a series of posts on the topic of election data integrity. ISACA Now previously published a US perspective on the topic. Today, we publish a post from Mike Hughes, providing a UK perspective.

In some ways, the UK has less to worry about when it comes to protecting the integrity of election data and outcomes than some of its international counterparts. The UK election process is well-established and proven over may years (well centuries), and therefore UK elections are generally conducted in a very basic manner. Before an election, voters receive a poll card indicating the location where they should go to vote. On polling day, voters enter the location, provide their name and address, and are presenting with a voting slip. They take this slip, enter the voting booth, pick up a pencil and put a cross in the box next to their candidate of choice. Voters then deposit this paper slip in an opaque box to be counted once polls are closed in the evening.

Pretty simple (and old-fashioned). Yet, despite the UK’s relatively straightforward election procedures, the Political Studies Association reported in 2016 that the UK rated poorly in election integrity relative to several other established democracies in Western Europe and beyond. More recently, there are strong suspicions that social media has been used to spread false information to manipulate political opinion and, therefore, election results. Consider that one of the biggest examples is the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal that has roiled both sides of the Atlantic, and it is fair to say that the matter of election integrity has only become more of a top-of-mind concern in the UK since that 2016 report, especially during the campaigning phase.

Rightfully so, steps are being taken to provide the public greater peace of mind that campaigns and elections are being conducted fairly. In 2017, the Information Commissioner launched a formal inquiry into political parties’ use of data analytics to target voters amid concerns that Britons’ privacy was being jeopardized by new campaign tactics. The inquiry has since broadened and become the largest investigation of its type by any Data Protection Authority, involving social media online platforms, data brokers, analytics firms, academic institutions, political parties and campaign groups. A key strand of the investigation centers on the link between Cambridge Analytica, its parent company, SCL Elections Limited, and Aggregate IQ, and involves allegations that data, obtained from Facebook, may have been misused by both sides in the UK referendum on membership of the EU, as well as to target voters during the 2016 United States presidential election process.

The investigation remains ongoing, but the Information Commissioner needed to meet her commitment to provide Parliament’s Digital Culture Media and Sport Select Committee with an update on the investigation for the purposes of informing their work on the “Fake News” inquiry before the summer recess. A separate report, “Democracy Disrupted? Personal Information and Political Influence”, has been published, covering the policy recommendations from the investigation. This includes an emphasis on the need for political campaigns to use personal data lawfully and transparently.

Social media powers also should draw upon their considerable resources to become part of the solution. Facebook, Google and Twitter have indicated they will ensure that campaigns that pay to place political adverts with them will have to include labels showing who has paid for them. They also say that they plan to publish their own online databases of the political adverts that they have been paid to run. These will include information such as the targeting, actual reach and amount spent on those adverts. These social media giants are aiming to publish their databases in time for the November 2018 mid-term elections in the US, and Facebook has said it aims to publish similar data ahead of the local elections in England and Northern Ireland in May 2019.

All of these considerations are unfolding in an era when the General Data Protection Regulation has trained a bright spotlight on how enterprises are leveraging personal data. As a society, we have come to understand that while the big data era presents many unprecedented opportunities for individuals and organizations, the related privacy, security and ethical implications must be kept at the forefront of our policies and procedures.

As I stated at the start of this article, the UK’s election system is a well-proven, paper-based process that has changed very little over many, many years. One thing is certain: sometime in the not-too-distant future, our paper-based system will disappear and be replaced by a digital system. There will then be a need for a highly trusted digital solution that provides a high level of confidence that the system cannot be tampered with or manipulated. These systems aren’t there yet, but technologies such as blockchain may be the start of the answer. Technology-driven capabilities will continue to evolve, but our commitment to integrity at the polls must remain steadfast.

Mike Hughes, past ISACA board director and partner with Haines Watts


[ISACA Now Blog]

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