Ireland: The Politics Of Data - Political Campaigning In The Age Of Facebook

Last Updated: 20 December 2018
Article by Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, Seán O'Reilly and Helena Murphy

On 6 November 2018, the Information Commissioner's Office (the "ICO") reported to the UK Parliament on its investigation into the use of data analytics in political campaigns.1 The ICO has deemed this to be the most complex data protection investigation they have ever conducted and the largest investigation of its type by any Data Protection Authority. 30 organisations formed the main focus of the investigation. These included social networking sites (notably Facebook) and data brokers to political parties and other interest groups. The investigation was launched in May 2017 after allegations were made about the 'invisible processing' of individuals' personal data and the micro-targeting of political adverts during the referendum on the UK's continued membership of the EU (the "Referendum"). A separate report was also published by the ICO in July 2018 entitled 'Democracy Disrupted? Personal Information and Political Influence'2, which explores the risks of interference with democratic process stemming from the misuse of personal data.

The primary focus of the ICO's investigation were the events surrounding the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal in 2017. Investigations carried out by The Observer newspaper revealed that Facebook was enabling the processing of personal data of Facebook users for purposes to which users did not consent. An app referred to as "thisisyourdigitallife" which was developed by Dr Aleksandr Kogan and his company Global Science Research, harvested the data of up to 87 million global Facebook users, including one million in the UK. Some of this data was then used by the data broker Cambridge Analytica (the trading name of SCLE Elections Ltd) to assist the Leave.EU campaign during the Referendum by micro-targeting voters. Dr Kogan had previously worked at the Psychometric Centre at Cambridge University where he and other academics had developed a number of apps, including an app called "My Personality" based on the OCEAN3 model. The academics found that by referring to as few as 68 Facebook "likes", they were able to predict with a high degree of accuracy a number of characteristics, including ethnicity and political affiliations.

Facebook's policies in force during the relevant time period permitted third-party apps to obtain user's personal data who installed the app, and in some circumstances, the data of the user's friends. However its policies sought to impose limits on what this data could be used for, namely for providing enhanced user experiences, and not for commercial purposes. Any terms of service changes used by app developers were supposed to comply with Facebook's policies and developers should have been aware of this.

The ICO found that Facebook users who accessed the app, together with friends of those Facebook users, were not made aware that their personal data would be: (1) provided to Cambridge Analytica, (2) used for the purposes of political campaigning, or (3) processed in a manner that involved drawing inferences about their political opinions. Therefore the processing of personal data could not be deemed lawful under the UK Data Protection Act 1998 (the "DPA1998") and the ICO found that Facebook did not take sufficient steps to prevent apps from unlawfully collecting personal data.

Facebook was issued with the maximum monetary penalty of £500,000 available under the DPA1998 for lack of transparency and security issues relating to the harvesting of data. The Commissioner has stated that this sum would be significantly greater had the infringements taken place after the coming into force of the General Data Protection Regulation ("GDPR"). As of the date of the report, the ICO was in the process of referring other outstanding issues about Facebook's targeting functions and techniques used to monitor individuals' browsing habits, interactions and behaviour across the internet and different devices to the Irish Data Protection Commission as the lead supervisory authority for Facebook under GDPR. Cambridge Analytica is now in administration but a 'substantial fine' would have issued had the company not entered administration. Despite this, the ICO is now pursuing a criminal prosecution against the company for failing to properly deal with an enforcement notice requiring the company to deal with a subject access request. The ICO issued two separate notices of intent to fine Leave.EU £60,000 and £15,000 for contraventions of regulation 22 of the UK Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.

The ICO's report details a number of other investigations and regulatory actions which are being pursued due to misuse of personal data during the Referendum campaign. This includes an investigation into allegations that Eldon Insurance Services Limited (trading as GoSkippy) shared customer data obtained for insurance purposes with Leave.EU. 11 warning letters requiring action by the main UK political parties were issued by the ICO and audits of Cambridge University and its psychometric centre have also been conducted.

Elizabeth Denham, the current UK Information Commissioner, acknowledges from the outset that it may never be known with certainty whether 'individuals were unknowingly influenced to vote a certain way' in the Referendum but what is certain is that personal privacy rights have been seriously compromised by a number of players. The report has, according to its authors, uncovered 'a disturbing disregard for voters' personal privacy' at a time when 'multiple jurisdictions are struggling to retain fundamental democratic principles in the face of opaque digital technologies'. The powers of the ICO were strengthened by the Data Protection Act 2018 but the organisation has called for further enhancement of its powers following this investigation. The central recommendation of this report is the establishment of a mandatory Code of Practice relating to the use of personal data in campaigns and elections. Whilst welcoming recent voluntary initiatives by social media platforms, the ICO concludes that 'a self-regulatory approach will not guarantee consistency, rigour or public confidence'. Ms Denham envisages that the ICO's investigation will provide a blueprint for other jurisdictions in the context of data privacy investigations. No doubt the Irish Data Protection Commissioner will be closely watching developments across the water following the launch of its own formal investigation into the Facebook data breach.4




3 The model identifies personality traits based on Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.


The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
In association with
Related Topics
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions