Data Protection and Democracy

Overview —

Peter Ryan examines the expansion of data collection and its use as a tool for the manipulation of elections.

Several recommendations are made which will help safeguard our democracy against unfair or malicious influence from companies or foreign states.


Peter Ryan

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Following the revelations that Facebook data was used by Cambridge Analytica to identify the politics of individuals based on their Facebook profiles, a light has been shone into the use of data by technology companies and the impact this has both on our lives and our democracy. These revelations of the use of data has shocked many people and led to calls for the reform of the use of data by social media companies. It has also led some politicians to call for reform of the status of social media companies to regulate them as broadcasters instead of telecommunications companies. Increased use of narrowly targeted data is exposing weaknesses in our democracy by making it possible to present different voters with different versions of a story, or to target them with outright “Fake News” whilst at the same time harvesting their personal data for commercial or other uses. The risk of mass interference in a country’s election by foreign agents has also greatly increased. This report outlines several recommendations that will help to safeguard the integrity of our democracy.


― There should be a ban on political advertising on social media that is funded by individuals or organisations based outwith the electoral area (e.g. political advertising in Scottish elections should be funded only by organisations and individuals within Scotland).

― All political donations should be fully traceable and there should be a cap on donations made by any individual or organisation in a single year or single democratic event.

― The costs of directly employed staff working on election and referendum campaigns should count towards campaigning body political spending.

― All campaign materials should carry an imprint showing who funded the material. Election spending returns should include more detailed information about advertising spending.

― All social media campaign material should be registered with the Electoral Commission and publicly displayed on a library of such material alongside data on where it was posted and how it was targeted. This will allow those who were not targeted by this material to see it and to allow voters to see who holds their data and how it was being used.

― The fines for breaching election campaign rules are far too low – to the point of being easily “costed in” to deliberate breaches. The cost of breaches should exceed the benefit of doing so, up to and including disbarring candidates from office and re-running elections or referendums.

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