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

Article by Alex Hern: “A new form of “influence government”, which uses sensitive personal data to craft campaigns aimed at altering behaviour has been “supercharged” by the rise of big tech firms, researchers have warned.

National and local governments have turned to targeted advertisements on search engines and social media platforms to try to “nudge” the behaviour of the country at large, the academics found.

The shift to this new brand of governance stems from a marriage between the introduction of nudge theory in policymaking and an online advertising infrastructure that provides unforeseen opportunities to run behavioural adjustment

Some of the examples found by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) range from a Prevent-style scheme to deter young people from becoming online fraudsters to tips on how to light a candle properly. While targeted advertising is common across business, one researcher argues that the government using it to drive behavioural change could create a perfect feedback loop.

“With the government, you’ve got access to all this data where you can see pretty much in real time who you need to talk to demographically, and then on the other end you can actually see, well, ‘did this make a difference?’,” said Ben Collier, of the University of Edinburgh. “The government doing this supercharges the ability of it to actually work.”

The British government’s fondness for minor behavioural modification tactics began in the David Cameron era. Since the foundation of the Behavioural Insight Team – or “nudge unit” – at No 10, ministers eagerly looked for tweaks to help people pay car tax or encourage people to buy loft insulation.

The examples of influence government uncovered by the SCCJR range from deeply serious to almost endearingly silly. At one end of the spectrum is the National Crime Agency’s “Cyber-Prevent” programme, which involves identifying young people at risk of becoming involved in cybercrime…(More)”.