Data protection experts have called on the watchdog to investigate political parties’ use of data, after internal Labour and Conservative records revealed how they will target voters in a general election.
Manuals for Labour campaigners, seen by Sky News, show the party buys data from credit reference agency Experian in order to target both traditional canvassing and advertising on Facebook.
Data obtained from the Conservatives shows it categorises people using Experian data in its VoteSource database.
Experian’s data is widely used by political parties and private companies, who prize its ability to classify voters on a street-by-street basis into categories such as “Bank of Mum and Dad”, “Disconnected Youth” and “Midlife Stopgap”.
Labour and the Conservatives buy Experian’s Mosaic database, which uses more than 850 million records, including crime data, GCSE results, gas and electricity consumption and child benefits, to classify people into one of 66 “types”.
Until last year, Labour also used an Experian tool called Origin to target voters based on ethnicity, with classifications such as “Black African”, “Black Carribean”, “Celtic”, “Eastern European” and “Jewish/Armenian”.
According to one version of the leaked manual, which dates from 2016, Labour used this tool for targeting direct mail, “gauging levels of support amongst particular groups” and deciding where “to put out invitations to particular community-based events, or use bilingual leaflets”.
Political use of such tools, which estimate ethnic origins based on names, has been controversial, most notably in the 2016 London mayoral election, when Conservative candidate Zak Goldsmith sent leaflets to British Indians accusing his opponent Sadiq Khan of being hostile to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Labour quietly stopped using the tool in 2018 after deciding it would not be legal under new data protection legislation.
However, data protection experts questioned whether it was lawful to use any data from Experian for political advertising, as voters had no ability to opt out and would be unlikely to know their information was being used in this way.
“People have explicit rights to opt-out of processing like this, with no exemptions, but if you don’t know it’s happening, how can you exercise these rights? Does the average person know about all this?” said Tim Turner, founder of data protection consultancy 2040 Training.
Pat Walshe, director of data protection firm Privacy Matters, added: “Absent of a specific notice and consent I don’t see how such actions would amount to transparent, fair and lawful processing.
“I can only hope the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is actively scrutinising the activities of UK political parties.”
A Conservative Party spokesman said: “The Conservative Party follows the rules set out by the Data Protection Act 2018.”
The Labour Party emphasised it used legally compliant data from Experian as part of its social media activity.
However, data rights campaigners questioned the party’s commitment to data rights, after it failed to fulfil a legal obligation to disclose its data.
In August, Sky News revealed the ICO had received more than five times the number of complaints about Labour than any other party, mostly because it failed to respond to requests for the data it held on people.
Matthew Rice, Scotland director of digital campaign organisation Open Rights Group, asked for his data in this way.
He said he feared Labour was “trying to avoid scrutiny of questionable data practices”.
Mr Rice, who had still not received a copy of his data, added: “The ease and apparent accessibility of access to this information for Labour staff is at odds with the accessibility of it for the public. Both of these things can’t be true.”
Labour has bought data from Experian since 2003, and in 2008 the party employed Experian to build its voter database, Contact Creator.
The leaked manuals show how this system is connected to the party’s Facebook advertising system, Promote, which was first used in the 2017 general election.
Campaigners select the data they want to use then it is used either for direct mail, door knocking and other forms of traditional canvassing. Or they are turned into “custom audiences” on Facebook – groups which are used by the social media giant for ad targeting.
Facebook advertisements seen by Sky News show Labour matches phone numbers with these Experian selections to target voters on the social network.
The manual says the selections are “particularly helpful” for “digital advertising audiences since this is the only way that you can pick out the exact group of voters you wish to advertise to”.
As well as Experian segments, Labour uses data it has collected on where voters live, how they are employed and whether or not they have children.
The party also uses “propensity scores”, automated scores that rank voters on a scale of 0 to 100 on their likelihood of supporting Labour and voting in a general election.
Earlier this month, Sky News revealed the Liberal Democrats were rating voters’ political preferences on 37 categories, including which party they would vote for in the next election and whether they were a Remainer or Leaver.
The Liberal Democrats confirmed to Sky News it did not use Experian’s Mosaic database.
An ICO spokeswoman said: “We are currently consulting on a framework that will clarify how personal data can be used in political campaigning to ensure it is used fairly, legally and transparently.”
An Experian spokesman said: “We’re committed to always doing the right thing – obtaining, processing, and using data compliantly and responsibly. Anyone can opt out of our marketing database at any time and we make it very easy for them to do so.”