Watchdog to probe online data being used as a political weapon after Leave.EU's 'creepy' Facebook profiling

LONDON — The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has launched an investigation into online voter data being used as a political weapon, according to The Observer.

The data protection watchdog confirmed the probe after Nigel Farage-backed Brexit campaign group Leave.EU last week admitted using “creepy” profiling technology to persuade Brits to vote to leave Europe.

Leave.EU communications director Andy Wigmore told The Observer that the group harvested personal data last year and targeted voters on Facebook with anti-EU messaging.

Leave.EU said it worked with Cambridge Analytica (CA), the data firm credited with helping Donald Trump win the US election, on an informal basis on the project. CA has strongly denied this, however.

The ICO is still keen to get answers from CA. “We will be contacting Cambridge Analytica and asking questions to find out how the company is operating in the UK and whether the law is being followed,” a spokeswoman told Business Insider last week.

Now the ICO has confirmed it is conducting a broader investigation. It told The Observer: “We are conducting a wide assessment of the data-protection risks arising from the use of data analytics, including for political purposes, and will be contacting a range of organisations. We intend to publicise our findings later this year.”

Caroline lucasCarl Court/Getty ImagesCaroline Lucas has concerns about data use during Brexit.

Wigmore told The Observer last week that Facebook was a powerful weapon in Leave.EU’s armoury, but admitted that the accuracy of the technology is “really creepy.” He said CA was “happy to help” with its work on Brexit with payment because Farage is a “good friend” of Robert Mercer, the hedge fund billionaire who is reported to have invested in CA.

But in a statement to Business Insider, CA said it played no part in Leave.EU’s Brexit campaign. “Cambridge Analytica did not carry out any kind of paid or unpaid work for Leave.EU,” a spokesman told us.

Remain campaigner and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said she has concerns about the matter. She told The Observer: “Clearly, there are questions to be answered about the Leave campaign’s use of big data and a potentially huge ‘in kind’ donation by Cambridge Analytica.”

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