The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for the United Kingdom has begun an investigation into the political use of private data, specifically in relation to data analytics used in the Brexit referendum.

The investigators will also review activity in the current general election campaign.

The issue at hand is whether or not voters’ privacy is compromised when data analytics firms collect information from social media sites (including Facebook and Twitter) to infer an individual’s political leanings, and used that data to create targeted advertising campaigns.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Elizabeth Denham, the UK Information Commissioner, said that the investigation would reveal the manner in which voters’ data is used in the course of a political campaign.

After meeting with all the political parties last week, to refresh data protection guidelines for campaigns, Denham noted, “All of this is to remind them that the law applies to the collection of data even when we are talking about Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. Again, that is data.”

Once the data is gathered and subjected to analysis, campaigns can create political advertisements that are ‘micro-targeted’ to either reinforce or change an individual’s opinion and optimistically, their vote.

The body of research on the influence of social media and big data analytics on the outcomes of political campaigns is growing exponentially, with accusations of ‘weaponizing data’ coming to the fore in both the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election of 2016.

In March 2017, the Electoral Commission was called upon to investigate allegations that the pro-Brexit Leave.EU had not shared information about the role that big data analytics would play in the campaign. The resulting preliminary assessment has been expanded to an official investigation.

In a blog post, Denham said that the use of advanced data analysis by political campaigns is understandable, but that public awareness about how personal data is collected and used is low.

Data analytics tools and related electronic marketing, she said, have the potential to significantly impact people’s rights to privacy, and the public should expect to be covered by relevant data protection laws in these circumstances.

“It is important that there is greater and genuine transparency about the use of such techniques to ensure that people have control over their own data and the law is upheld.”

Denham went on to confirm that the investigation would be a high priority for the ICO, and promised an update later this year.