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Study finds growing government use of sensitive data to ‘nudge’ public behaviour

by Our Parliamentary reporter @TrinderMatt

TORY government agencies are increasingly using sensitive personal data to craft campaigns aimed at manipulating public behaviour, researchers warned yesterday. 

A study, published by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, said that the new form of “influence government” has been supercharged by the rise of big tech firms which have access to massive amounts of personal data.

The tactics — used at local and national levels — are being used to alter public behaviour to achieve health and social policy outcomes, the report pointed out.

Police are following suit, researchers claimed, using the tactics to tackle crime, with the National Crime Agency carrying out a six-month “influence operation” to fight cybercrime involving surveillance, direct intervention and targeted online advertising messaging.

The report also found a government communications training podcast which said that the Home Office used the purchasing data of people who had recently bought candles to target them through their smart speakers with fire safety adverts.

The University of Strathclyde’s Dr Daniel Thomas, who co-authored the report, demanded more scrutiny be placed on the practice.

“These advanced marketing approaches are more than just communications and go far beyond media management.

“Our research suggests that they are front-line policy interventions and need to be seen as such, and subjected to the same public debate, scrutiny and accountability as other such policies.”

Dr Thomas said that there is also a need for “legal and ethical questions to be answered” over the targeting of particular groups and characteristics and the algorithms used to obtain the data in the first place. 

Privacy International said it that was “shocked” to see government agencies engaging in such “intrusive and harmful practices.”

A spokesperson told the Morning Star that the campaign group has evidence of personal information being collected from “women who have just given birth and users of mental health websites which is then shared with third parties without their knowledge.

“This sensitive information can then be combined with other information in order to build ‘profiles’ of people and target them with adverts and messages online.

“It is shocking that the government is buying into this practice, knowing full well the harms.”

Big Brother Watch's Mark Johnson told the Star: “At the heart of this unholy alliance between nudge theory policymaking and targeted online advertising is the practice of profiling people.

“The idea that the government is scraping highly personal data based on online activity, in order to directly influence individual behaviour, is creepy and invasive.”

The Cabinet Office was contacted for comment. 

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