Online privacy – a general election battleground

It’s becoming increasingly clear that one of the key battlegrounds in the 2015 General Election will be online. The BBC’s Ross Hawkins reports that the Conservatives are spending large amounts each month on Facebook advertising, and Labour and UKIP, while not having the means to spend as much, are ramping up their online campaigning. But, as Hawkins says

the aim is not to persuade people to nod thoughtfully while they stare at a screen. They want consumers of their online media to make donations or, even better, to get their friends’ support or to knock on doors in marginal constituencies…[but] for all the novelties of online marketing, email remains king. Those Tory Facebook invoices show that most of the money was spent encouraging Conservative supporters to hand over their email addresses. Labour and the Conservatives send emails to supporters, and journalists, that appear to come from their front benchers, pleading for donations

I know this well, because in July last year, after growing weary of blogging about questionable compliance with ePrivacy laws by all the major parties and achieving nothing, I set a honey trap: I submitted an email address to the Conservative, Labour, LibDem, Green, UKIP, SNP and Plaid Cymru websites. In each case I was apparently agreeing with a proposition (such as the particularly egregious LibDem FGM example)  giving no consent to reuse, and in each case there was no clear privacy notice which accorded with the Information Commissioner’s Office’s Privacy Notices Code of Practice (I do not, and nor does the ICO, at least if one refers to that Code, accept that a generic website privacy policy is sufficient in case like this). Since then, the fictional, and trusting but naive, Pam Catchers (geddit??!!) has received over 60 emails, from all parties contacted. A lot of them begin, “Friend, …” and exhort Pam to perform various types of activism. Of course, as a fictional character, Pam might have trouble enforcing her rights, or complaining to the ICO, but the fact is that this sort of bad, and illegal, practice, is rife.

To be honest, I thought Pam would receive more than this number of unsolicited emails (but I’m probably more cynical than her). But the point is that each of these emails was sent in breach of the parties’ obligations under the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 (PECR) which demands that recipients of electronic direct marketing communications must have given explicit consent prior to the sending. By extension, therefore, the parties are also in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), which, when requiring “fair” processing of personal data, makes clear that a valid privacy notice must be given in order to achieve this.

The ICO makes clear that promotion by a political party can constitute direct marketing, and has previously taken enforcement action to try to ensure compliance. It has even produced guidance for parties about their PECR and DPA obligations. This says

In recent years we have investigated complaints about political parties and referendum campaigners using direct marketing, and on occasion we have used our enforcement powers to prevent them doing the same thing again. Failure to comply with an enforcement notice is a criminal offence.

But by “recent” I think they are referring at least six years back.

A data controller’s compliance, or lack thereof, with data protection laws in one area is likely to be indicative of its attitude to compliance elsewhere. Surely the time has come for the ICO at least to remind politicians that online privacy rights are not to be treated with contempt?

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

2 Comments

Filed under consent, Data Protection, enforcement, Information Commissioner, marketing, PECR, privacy notice

2 responses to “Online privacy – a general election battleground

  1. Pingback: "Online privacy – a general election battleground" - A Jon Baines Blog - Gnoname's North East Councils' News

  2. Pingback: Labour’s “HowManyOfMe” – legitimate use of the electoral register? | informationrightsandwrongs

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