Elections are about more than voting and the entire election cycle is increasingly data dependent. Voter registration, voter authentication, voting and results transmission all involve the the collection of at least some personal data. Political parties depend on data to drive their campaigns, from deciding where to hold rallies, which campaign messages to focus on in which area, and how to target supporters, undecided voters and non-supporters, including with ads on social media.

Data exploitation during the election cycle, therefore, risks undermining fundamental democratic processes.

What is the problem?

Our democratic institutions are under threat today and the groundwork is being set to destabilise them into the future. Private, political, and state actors are creating an environment that is rife for the manipulation of democratic outcomes, and the loss of confidence in democratic institutions and processes. We need laws or regulations enforced, changes in technologies and industry behaviour, and expert allies to understand the role data exploitation plays in heightening this threat.

Personal data is central to this emerging way of seeking to influence democratic processes. Through the amassing and processing of vast amounts of data, individuals are profiled based on their stated or inferred political views, preferences, and characteristics. These profiles are then used to target individuals with news, disinformation, political messages, and many other forms of content aimed at influencing and potentially manipulating their views. This campaign environment presents novel challenges due to the scale and range of data available together with the multiplicty, complexity and speed of profiling and targeting techniques. All of this is characterised by its opacity. Existing legal frameworks designed to curtail this exploitation often also fall short, either in substance or enforcement.

Much recent debate has focussed on the content of election-related digital communications, e.g. ‘fake news’ and disinformation, particularly in the form of political adverts and messages we see on social media.  At PI, we are interested in what is "behind the curtain" - what data has been collected and inferred about you that has resulted in you seeing this piece of content. The companies that make this their business model need to be exposed and scrutinised as do the political parties buying their services.

In addition, the deployment of technology used to conduct elections needs to be scrutinised. Biometric voter registration, authentication and results transmissions systems are expensive to implement and often complex. Procurement needs to be transparent and myths busted about how the technology actually works, what it can realistically do and what problem its use is trying to solve. Technology should reinforce trust in elections and the democratic process, not undermine it.

International election observers are increasingly called upon to consider the role of personal data and the digital technologies that are used by all main actors in democratic elections. This is not an easy task. It will require updating existing election observers’ methodologies and acquiring new technical skills.

What is the solution?

We need effective safeguards that reflect changes in digital campaigning now and looking into the future. We also need to see actors around the world, from governments, regulators, platforms to political parties, taking measures to resist the current race to the bottom. As a starting point:

  • We need much more transparency from all actors, from political campaigns, advertisers and platforms, to shed much needed light on their data gathering practices, how such data is used, in particular for profiling and then how such profiles are used to target messaging. This transparency is vital to understand how political campaigns work, who they work with, what tools they use and their data practices and in turn to ensure that there are appropriate limits in place.
  • Transparency is needed for users/ voters, for regulators and for researchers. All online and offline advertisements should be publicly available and easily searchable, with detailed information including who recieved what and why.
  • Comprehensive data protection law must be implemented and enforced and any loopholes that can be exploited by political campaigns closed. Data Protection Authorities should issue binding enforceable guidance on the use of data in political campaigning.
  • Electoral laws need to be updated for the digital age, this includes to reflect that digital political campaigning takes place outside the strict electoral period; to require detailed and timely reporting on campaign financing and advertising to electoral authorities.
  • Legal frameworks must provide for effective redress (individual and collective) and meaningful sanctions.
  • Regulators must have sufficient independence and adequate resources (both technical, human and financial) to enforce the law. They should work together with their counterparts at national and international level.
  • Electoral observers should update their working practices to ensure that personal data and digital technology are used to support, rather than undermine, participation in the democratic process and the conduct of free and fair elections.

What is PI doing?

Protecting the Election Cycle: PI supports international, regional and local election observer missions to consider the role of personal data and the digital technologies that are used by all main actors in democratic elections.

Targeting Political Exploitation: PI exposes and challenges the political data exploitation industry by investigating and challenging companies and those that use them. PI seeks to improve regulatory safeguards against political data exploitation by pushing for enforcement of exisiting safeguards and the introduction/reform of others.

Political Ad Transparency: PI works prevent companies that facilitate the exploitation of data by advertisers by allowing opaque and invasive targeting from continuing to do so globally.