The online rights of citizens – their ability to be web freedom as well as privacy – are an area of growing concern. We speak to the UK’s Pirate Party leader Cris Chesha about the changing tide

In Iceland a revolution is underway. There are no guns, no dictators, and certainly no blood is being shed. This is a democratic revolution.

The Pirate Party, standing for Internet and data freedom, has seen a meteoric growth since it was formed in 2012. A year after its launch in the country it won three seats on the Icelandic parliament and now opinion polls have given the party the biggest percentage share of the vote – almost 24% of the total vote, more than double what it was at the start of the year).

“They achieved explosive growth on the back of widespread unrest; the country had had enough of being pushed around by corruption and bankers, and they got together and did something about it,” says Cris Chesha. “They’ve really inspired a lot of people to look to Pirates as a way to be heard above the drone of mainstream politics.”

Chesha hopes to dispel the belief that the party is just about fighting for Internet rights

Chesha is the newly elected leader of the UK branch of the Pirate Party – which has just celebrated its sixth birthday as an official political party– and he, naturally, wants to mimic the Icelandic success with the growth of his party.

But the challenge ahead is a colossal one.

In the UK’s general election in May the party put up six candidates for election who received a total of 1,130 votes between them – Chesha himself received 181 votes in the Northern seat he stood in. You might think that with more awareness of digital rights and mass surveillance, post Snowden and WikiLeaks, the party would have had more candidates representing it than ever before, but the number dropped compared to the previous general election.

In 2010, nine candidates stood for Parliament, getting just over 1,300 votes between them. The party fared better in the European elections in 2014 where it polled 8,500 votes in the North West of the UK.

There is a long way to go to reach Icelandic levels of notoriety; however, Chesha says he hopes to dispel the belief that the party is just about fighting for Internet rights. “Just like, for example, the Green movement are about more than just ‘the environment’, the Pirate movement is so much more than just an Internet lobby group,” he says.

“Obviously we have our core things that people know we will always campaign on – free Internet, freedom of communication, and so on, but given the current political climate, I think it’s time to get our messages of government transparency and participatory democracy out there.”

Achieving growth

The general principles that political parties under the Pirate label stand for can vary but core values include the support of civil rights movements, open information, privacy, and increasing the number of people involved in the democratic process.

Chesha says that the movement at its core wants to “drive democratic reform across the board” and to do this in the UK the party has to try to get its broader message to the public.  “We’re leading the charge, for example, on demanding that governments start using block chain technology to publish big, high-grade “6 Star” open transparency data,” he says. “A cryptographically verified and absolutely indelible, point-of-truth ledger of linked government data? Now that’s the kind of transparency Pirate Party UK can get behind.”

He and his party members believe that democratic control needs to be returned to the people. This means writing copyright laws that represent the people, having an Internet that is a common good and tackling surveillance issues.

A post-Snowden world?

Before Edward Snowden was granted permission to stay in Russia the elected Pirate Party members of the Icelandic parliament introduced a bill that would have given him Icelandic citizenship and protection from extradition if he made it to the country. It failed to get enough support but was an important gesture that recognised the importance of the leaks made by the former CIA employee.

Image courtesy of the Freedom of the Press Foundation

Image courtesy of the Freedom of the Press Foundation

Since then the discussion around surveillance and Internet privacy has slowly moved on – more so in the US than the UK. Scrutiny of the NSA has been higher than ever before and the leaks promoted the passing of the USA Freedom Act that was heralded as “the most important surveillance reform bill since 1978” by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Meanwhile in the UK the debate hasn’t achieved anywhere near the same level of prominence. The country’s biggest police force has only recently confirmed – after a seven-month battle with intervention from the information regulator –that it is running a criminal investigation looking at the journalists who handled the material provided by Snowden. Chesha believes that the “underwhelming reaction” of the UK public has “galvanised the authorities to do more”.

In reality the outcome of the UK’s general election – which surprised pollsters and led to a majority Conservative government – has resulted in an attack on civil liberties, rather than the strengthening of them. Lawyers have been on strike and the Human Rights Act could be changed, among other worrying developments. “The UK has managed to mandate a Tory government to throw out the rule book and declare all-out war on everything from online privacy, to civil liberties, to freedom of information, to every-day cryptography in the space of just two months,” Chesha says.

In making these announcements the government has faced a backlash from campaigners and civil liberties groups; it has also been defeated in the courts over surveillance issues. Two Members of Parliament, from opposing parties, defeated a controversial government snooping bill in court.

David Davis and Tom Watson took the government to court over the unlawful creation of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (DRIPA) which exists to allow security services, such as GCHQ, to have access to phone and internet records of individuals, after the European courts revoked the previous legislation that allowed access. The British courts ruled that DRIPA was unlawful as it didn’t comply with European law.

You and I are living in a Post-Snowden world, but, sadly, I don’t think the UK authorities are

The Open Rights Group said that it hoped the government, after the court’s decision, would listen to the legitimate concerns about blanket data retention. “When the government forced DRIPA through Parliament a year ago, they denied our parliamentarians and the British public a proper debate about how our personal data is being kept by telecoms companies and accessed by the state,” said ORG’s Executive Director Jim Killock.

Chesha said he isn’t sure whether any government should be trusted with surveillance, and that if they’re not open to scrutiny “then they will fail you”.

“That’s what we have here, and how we got into this mess,” he said. “We have secret projects that have been conceived, built and left to run wild with absolutely no oversight – either internally or publicly. You and I are living in a post-Snowden world, but, sadly, I don’t think the UK authorities are.”

The digital tide is turning

It’s the increased awareness of data collection and surveillance that has the biggest chance to change how systems work in the UK. There is an increasing desire, supported by leading figures, that the judicial system should be put to work when the comes to overseeing surveillance.

Image and featured image courtesy of Rena Schild /

Image courtesy of Rena Schild /

David Anderson Q.C., the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has said that the use of intrusive powers has to be shown to be necessary by officials and spelled out by the law. “The current law is fragmented, obscure, under constant challenge and variable in the protections that it affords the innocent.  It is time for a clean slate,” Anderson said in his 370-page review of snooping legislation.

A separate independent surveillance review conducted by the Royal Services Institute, recommended that requests for interception of communications should be authorised by a senior judge and warrants that are signed by a Secretary of State should be subject to judicial scrutiny. The report’s chairperson Michael Clarke said the current system is “complicated, overlapping and in some cases, creaky”.

And a third review, conducted by the Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on intelligence and law enforcement data sharing, said that the UK government needs to be more transparent in the “number and nature” of requests to overseas communications agencies. His report, however, wasn’t published in its entirety, just a summary of his findings.

These reports indicate that the tide is slowly turning and that people in the UK recognise that surveillance can’t continue in the way that it has been happening.

The only way that such surveillance activities can be enacted with any hint of democracy is if the programs are public knowledge to begin with

“The only way that such surveillance activities can be enacted with any hint of democracy is if the programs are public knowledge to begin with. The programs must be selective (no more blanket data collection), fully regulated, and transparent in how they operate,” says Chesha.

“Targets for data collection must be rare, justified and approved by a fair judicial process. The judicial process itself should be as transparent as possible, with public oversight. Is it really asking that much?”

While the UK public might not be at a place where it will be electing Pirate Party members into positions of power just yet, the party does have answers to the technological challenges that impact upon everyone living in the UK and further afield.


With new generations of voters who have grown up with technology, care about their privacy, and want to know what is happening with their data, it is only a matter of time until this growth is kick-started.

US presidential campaigning is being transformed by technology, enabling individual voters to be targeted like never before. But with the ability to convince almost any voter that a candidate is right for them, are we heading for a future where democracy is left behind?

Over the last two decades, technology has transformed our lives in ways that even Back to the Future couldn’t have conceived. Using devices that are slimmer than a slice of toast, we can find out almost anything, get food and products delivered to our door in as little as minutes and get into arguments with people on the other side of the globe about news events happening thousands of miles away.

We know all this; we marvel at what the future has brought us, and speculate with either deep excitement or growing unease about what may be next. However, one area that we wrongly perceive to not really have changed is politics.


Image courtesy of Jason W Lacey. Featured image courtesy of Surian Soosay

In reality, political campaigning has changed dramatically in recent years, thanks to the remarkable possibilities that technology has provided. In the US, a presidential campaign team now has instant, highly detailed feedback about their candidate’s every move, and is able to reach individual voters with targeted messages in a way never previously possible.

“Technology really does give you a much better view into the conversation that’s going on around the campaign, when you get into things, social media monitoring and those sorts of things, the listening capability of the campaign, to see in real-time how things are playing out,” says Michael Turk, former eCampaign director of the 2004 Bush/Cheney presidential re-election campaign, management information systems director for the 2000 Dan Quayle campaign and internet adviser for the 2008 Fred Thompson campaign.

The rise of technology

Now president of Opinion Movers Strategies, a communications agency for political, non-profit and commercial organisations, Turk played a major digital role in Republican campaigns at the time when the internet was finding its way into our lives. He saw it go from a small element to a major factor, in a matter of only years.

“Going back to the first campaign that I did back in 1999, former vice president Dan Quayle was running for president and the primary was a very crowded field, kind of like we have today,” he said.

“At that time nobody was really taking online contributions yet, so there was no fundraising going on, the website was largely a brochure operation as opposed to something dynamic that people were interacting with quite a bit.”

Back then, people were responding to politicians online, but campaign teams were not yet using this as a feedback tool.

Everything is very much interactive, there’s a lot more dynamic between the campaign and the visitor to the website

“At the time most of your internet operations weren’t really tied to your voter file or your targeting, your data side of the house, so most of what was going on on the internet really wasn’t captured in any sort of a meaningful way, which compared to the campaigns today is considerably different,” Turk explains.

“Everything is very much interactive, there’s a lot more dynamic between the campaign and the visitor to the website, both in terms of the visitors being able to have more involvement in the campaign dig, creating lock lists and printing out phone lists, and during call making from home and a lot of those kinds of things.

“That is all tied much more to the back side of the house where you have much more of the analytics that you are using to look at what those people are doing, and feeding that into all your voter contact programs and all your reporting in terms of how to campaign.”

Change from Obama

Ask anyone in the political spectrum which US presidential campaigns changed campaigning using technology the most, and you’ll get the same answer: Obama.

The 2008 Obama campaign has been attributed with everything from inventing political campaigning on social media to bringing technology into the campaigning process for the first time. Neither of these things is true, but the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns undoubtedly innovated, impacting on the way campaigning works, and will certainly influence campaigns for many years to come.

“There’s a lot of mythology that has risen up around what we did and what worked,” says Michael Slaby, technologist, former chief integration and innovation officer for the 2012 Obama campaign and chief technology officer on the 2008 Obama campaign. “The core idea [is[ that novelty is not an outcome for a campaign – at the end of the day innovation must be in service of getting more votes.”

The core idea is that novelty is not an outcome for a campaign – innovation must be in service of getting more votes

Although both served the purpose of ensuring Obama was president for a term, the two campaigns were extremely different in terms of technology and execution.

“The first campaign, we started in 2007. Twitter had just launched; Facebook had just opened its doors to non-college students; cloud computing wasn’t really a standard practice. There were a lot of really big substantive differences in both the communications landscape and the digital landscape, and also the pure technology and engineering landscape, and so a lot of our innovation was geared towards going into new networks and new environments,” says Slaby.

The decision to use technology and social media at that point was largely due to the nature of the candidate, rather than simply because it was there.

“We knew we were going to lose the traditional primary, because we weren’t the traditional candidate,” Slaby explains. “At that point it was then Senator Obama from Illinois with the funny name that not everybody had heard of, so we needed to change the nature of who was going to participate in the process, and that meant going in new places like Twitter and Facebook, and all these other social networks where we just recognised an opportunity to engage people directly in new places.”

But while the platforms were modern, the activities they were being used for were very familiar to traditional campaigners.

“What digital tools gave us was the ability to do what really amounts to very traditional community organising kind of activities, of reaching people, talking about their experiences, asking them to share their ideas and stories, but being able to do that on a really massive scale,” says Slaby.

The power of analytics

While the 2008 campaign was all about social media, 2012 saw the rise of analytics and targeted campaigning on an unprecedented scale, thanks, for the most part, to the advances in technology and cloud computing that had occurred over the previous four years. “We were able to start building our own technologies in ways and at a scale that we couldn’t even attempt the first time around,” says Slaby.

But the bigger benefit was the fact that Obama was the incumbent, giving the campaign team far more time to develop the technologies to aid their campaign.

“Because we knew what we were in for, we knew we were going to be the nominee, we weren’t fighting through a primary, all of those limitations were gone, and so we had this chance to take a step back and say ‘alright, what do we want our toolset to look like?’,” he explains. “What are the areas where better data, more efficient digital experiences are going to make a big difference in our ability to activate voters, our ability to deliver messages to the right people, our ability to raise money?”

The team custom-built an array of technologies, resulting in a team made up of quite different people to 2008, and producing tools that allowed individual voters to be targeted with far more sophistication than ever before. The key here, according to Turk, is that the Obama campaign didn’t just use technology, but married it with more traditional disciplines to reach voters in a way that they would respond to.

They had all the robust data and data modelling, but the Obama campaign actually assembled a team of behaviourists that looked at the data

“They had all the robust data and data modelling that they were doing, but the Obama campaign actually assembled a team of behavioural psychologists, behavioural economists and behavioural scientists that looked at the data,” explains Turk. “When you look at the data you can basically say ‘how is somebody going to respond to a message?’ So if I deliver this message, who out of this pool of people can respond to it based on what our data tells us? And based on their consumer behaviour and other things, by applying the traditional sciences of behaviour science, you can start to ask why they don’t respond.”

And for Turk, this involvement of the academic world is likely to continue. “That’s where I think Obama really made great strides in 2012, and where I think you’ll start to see a lot of interaction between the academic world and the big data world,” he says. “That’s an area that I think Republicans are really at a disadvantage simply because of the fact that academia is, in the US, largely a liberal, progressive universe of people.”

As clearly successful and innovative as the Obama campaign’s techniques were, Slaby is reluctant to take too much credit for the campaign’s innovations.

“We were the first ones to have a chance to use this stuff. Now we actually did a good job, and I think we made good decisions and we did do some good things with those opportunities, but I think sometimes we get too much credit for being groundbreaking just because we happened to be there the day the ground broke,” he says. “That said I do think in the States we are seeing it as a model of a new way of thinking about campaigns.”

Targeted danger

As with any targeted messages, there is the risk of wandering into creepy territory, where the knowledge that campaign teams are able to capture is so in-depth that it offers a level of control and persuasion that almost guarantees the message will be successful.

But even by using more traditional technologies voters’ behaviour can be monitored and analysed in ways well beyond what many regular people realise, as Turk explains, using the example of cable television.

“Cable television has been pursuing a model where you have a home in the US and it’s got two bedrooms and a living room, and each of the bedrooms has a TV and the living room has a TV,” he explains. “And the cable platform is sophisticated enough now where they can generally tell which room and which member of the household is watching the TV in which room based on the programming stream.”

There’s so much data that tells the campaigns exactly who you are and what pushes your buttons, and yet most people are unaware that’s going on behind the scenes

“You can tell when someone in the living room turns on Top Gear that that’s more likely the male head of household, and when it’s on Real Housewives of Orange County that would be the female in the household, and they can look at the behaviour stream of television watching. And now you’ve got an ability to actually target an ad to a specific member of the household. So it’s not even a broad demographic, but now you’ve married the technology to the point where you can actually say ‘this is Susan Smith, and she’s watching this program at this time, so I want to run that ad targeted at her’.”

This moves adverts away from a broadcast approach, where many of the viewers will not respond to the message in question, to a system where a tailored message with a high chance of success can be sent directly to a potential voter in an environment where they are on their own and more likely to be receptive.

“You’re very, very narrowcast messaging to specific voters and if you can hit a voter while they’re watching their favourite program, and not hit that other voter in the household, so in that example let’s say Susan Smith who’s a Democrat, and Bob Smith whose a Republican, you can deliver that Democratic ad directly to Susan with very little chance that Bob is going to see it and get irritated and motivate him to go vote against your candidate,” says Turk.

“The creepy factor is what I find fascinating about all of this because there’s so much data that tells the campaigns exactly who you are and exactly what pushes your buttons, and they know exactly when you’re going to be watching TV so that they run that ad to push that button, and yet most people are kind of unaware that that’s going on behind the scenes of a modern campaign.”

Does democracy remain?

This combination of psychological and technological messaging arguably gives candidates much greater power to persuade voters than was possible in the past.

“The ability to up the propaganda value of campaign messaging starts to get really high and it almost moves to a point where it’s no longer ‘we’re going to present an idea and hope we’re going to have the best idea’, it’s ‘we’re going to present a slew of ideas to different people in different formats at different times, we create a coalition to drive us forward, whether or not those people necessarily would be normally amenable to the candidate or not’,” says Turk.

“I think it’s really interesting to ask the question, at what point does the technology give you the ability for someone like Mitt Romney who is perceived as very out of touch with the lower middle class, at what point does the messaging, the vehicle, the technology and the psychology unite to give you the ability to convince someone who would otherwise never have voted for Mitt Romney to push that button?”

If the thought of being persuaded to vote for Mitt Romney terrifies you, you may be asking whether democracy could completely vanish from the equation, resulting in a system where the campaign that wins is the one with the most sophisticated technology. So could this happen?

“I think it certainly could. I think it may have already happened, frankly, with 2012,” says Turk. “There’s a legitimate open question as to whether the Obama campaign, the main difference between what Obama was doing and what Mitt Romney was doing was that Mitt Romney was just outclassed with regards to the data and the technology that the Obama campaign had deployed.”


However, others disagree that technology could ever exert this level of control over the political system.

“I don’t actually think that’s true, because at the end of the day what wins campaigns is leadership with a vision for the future that the country buys into,” counters Slaby. “People ask a lot about the role of analytics and data, and I think that’s an area where very careful optimisation, and very careful segmentation, and who you are messaging and how has a lot to do with the margin of victory.

“So in the last campaign in 2012, we only lost two of the states that we had won in 08, and the reason for that is that campaigns are fundamentally about resource allocation, and analytics makes you very, very efficient. What that means is that anywhere things are close we were able to win because we were more efficient about how we used our resources than the other team. And I don’t think that means you can just algorithmically win presidential campaigns.

“Fundamentally a starting point of a campaign is a set of values and a set of ideas that animate the system and that comes from the candidate and the leadership and the ideas for the future. All of those things are the things that you are delivering, but if you try and pick those things by algorithm, I think you’re going to end up trying to be all things to all people and it rings as inauthentic, and there’s lots of challenges with that kind of pure algorithmic view of building a campaign.”

Looking to 2016

How much candidates will use technology in their 2016 campaigns remains to be seen. At this stage they have much left to show, and how much of a role technology plays in each campaign will likely to be only clear once the parties’ chosen candidates are announced.

However, as much as social media and insight tools will certainly be used, the real advancements are likely to be in 2020, when whoever wins in 2016 campaigns for re-election.

mag-promotion--feature-footer“I think part of the challenge that you have in 2016 is that you have an open seat for the president,” says Turk. “In 2012, as was the case in 2004 I think, the party of the president is in a much greater position because they actually can build a platform over the course of four years between when they get elected and when they run for re-election.

“So I think that I would like to think whoever gets elected in this cycle will probably get re-elected in 2020 simply because they have the advantage of incumbency in terms of building that technology.”