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'Voter tracking': everyone's doing it

Date

Michael Inman

ACT Liberal politicians have defended their use of voter-tracking software to record and share personal details of constituents who contact their offices.

Liberals MLA Alistair Coe recently contacted Katherine Beauchamp using her private, unlisted phone number.

When asked how he had the number, Mr Coe's office said it was logged in the party's "constituent engagement system" when Ms Beauchamp contacted ACT Liberal senator Gary Humphries about a separate issue last year.

Mr Coe's habit of using the system to send 18th and 21st birthday cards to constituents had also raised eyebrows among rival MLAs.

The admission provides a rare glimpse into the methods political parties adopt to profile voters, target advertising, conduct opinion polls, and devise policy.

The Labor Party runs a similar profiling database, called Electrac.

The practice has attracted the ire of privacy campaigners since voter-tracking software became common during the 1990s.

Political parties are exempt from privacy laws that limit organisations from collecting personal information.

Parties receive monthly copies of the electoral roll from the Australian Electoral Commission, which provides voters' details, including their name, age, gender and address.

The parties then augment this basic data with information collected while interacting with constituents.

The Canberra Liberals declined to divulge the type of detail logged against individuals, but said the database was an administrative tool.

"The system is really just an electronic filing system," a spokesman said.

"If a constituent contacts a member it is a paperless way to record the nature of the issue and generate a letter to a minister or other government contact, similar to a Microsoft access database.

"Like all matters dealt with by members and their staff, the greatest care is taken to assure people's privacy is protected unless the constituent indicates that they have or would prefer to have the information made public through the media."

ACT Labor branch state secretary Elias Hallaj said: "Just like any large organisation, we use an address list, in this case the electoral roll, to send out letters to our constituents."

Minor parties have similar, but less sophisticated databases due to fewer resources.

The ACT Greens said individual constituent information provided to their MLAs was kept confidential and not used for other purposes.

But Australian Privacy Foundation board member Nigel Waters, the federal deputy privacy commissioner from 1989 to 1997, said voter tracking software was a breach of privacy and could be misused for malicious purposes.

"We know from anecdotal evidence that there are all kinds of soft-intelligence on there, things like peoples likes and dislikes and whether they're considered cranks," Mr Waters said.

The Australian Law Reform Commission in 2008 recommended the removal of the exemption.

Mr Waters said the loophole had concerned the commission for two decades.

"It's completely outrageous that political parties have gotten away with this so long," Mr Waters said.

"It's complete hypocrisy that there are rules imposed on the rest of the population but they think they're above it all.

"One of the advantages of privacy laws is that you are entitled to ask what information organisations hold about you and you can go on to quiz them about where they got it from.

"But because political parties are exempt you can't even do that."

Ms Beauchamp said she was sickened her personal details had been added to the database without her consent.

She had requested her details deleted from the file.

"I am sickened at the betrayal of trust, in that information I was asked to give in order to get help from an elected representative's office was secretly funnelled to a secret file available to all political party colleagues for election and other party political purposes," Ms Beauchamp said.

"I am appalled that such files exist, that major parties throughout the Australian system use their legislative powers to allow them and that everyone else is subject to agreed-on privacy principles."

12 comments

  • This is totally not OK as there hasn't been any consent obtained to share the information. Even spammers usually have to get someone to tick a 'subscribe' button to be able to bombard them with commercial or other propaganda. Unless people are explicitly told when they ring that their number is being captured and may be used for marketing purposes then they absolutely shouldn't be doing it.

    Commenter
    tigger
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    October 26, 2012, 1:32PM
    • The Labor Party does the same thing. Wheather its right or wrong,it's legal.

      Commenter
      Martin Says
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      October 26, 2012, 2:28PM
      • Funny how Mr Coe uses all these databases to cold contact people and send birthday cars. However the same Mr Coe could not take the time to answer a few policy questions I had for him about 6 months ago. Suffice to say my vote at last weekends election went to the party that bothered to answer my questions (Labor).

        Commenter
        Jimmy
        Location
        CBR
        Date and time
        October 26, 2012, 2:34PM
        • I wish Mr Coe would send me a birthday car but I couldn't afford the registration costs!

          Commenter
          Bruce
          Location
          Chapman
          Date and time
          October 26, 2012, 8:12PM
      • All election material, regardless of source, is filed in the yellow topped cabinet. ;-)

        Commenter
        DavidG
        Location
        ACT
        Date and time
        October 26, 2012, 2:49PM
        • Why is this even an article?

          Pretty old news re-visited... Not much of a 'headline'... then again... anything against the Liberal Party is always written on in CT.

          Commenter
          RR
          Date and time
          October 26, 2012, 4:12PM
          • There is not really anything wrong with it..... would you rather the parties use paper to record this information..... of course they are going to keep information on people that contact them and the issue they had, what is the difference between it being electronic or hard copy? all parties do it. and really, if your biggest issue in life is that you got a letter in the mail you dont want, you have it pretty damn good!

            Commenter
            LewisO'Brien
            Date and time
            October 26, 2012, 5:04PM
            • Does the Labor Party do the same thing? How do you know? When I inquired they said they don't help themselves to personal info given by constituents to MP's. But, as things stand in Australia, once you give any information to a member of parliament you have completely lost control over what they do with it. All you have to go on is trust. Democracy runs on trust. I didn't know that the two major parties in all States and Territories and the national parliament have voted themselves exempt from privacy principles that they expect everyone else to abide by. The Greens did not and a few independents did not. Why would someone want to do that, unless they want to do stuff with your personal details that you wouldn't like and wouldn't agree to. I have told Senator Humphries I want to see the files he holds on me and I'll be in with a witness to cop an optic before I decide what to do next. I have told him that Alasdair Coe MLA is saying one thing about where he got my information, and then Alasdair Coe is saying something else to someone else, and he has already said something else completely different (like he got it off the Electoral Roll which he didn't) and Senator Humphries is saying something else again - that it wasn't him directly.
              I'M saying: What have they got to hide? NOT everybody is doing this stuff.
              Why should you trust any member of parliament who wants secret access to your personal information to use behind your back for their political benefit? UK MP's were legally prevented from doing this in 1982. What a political backwater we are in Australia! Katherine Beauchamp

              Commenter
              Fluffy
              Date and time
              October 26, 2012, 5:57PM
              • Thanks for the article. The pity of this is that the privacy legislation seems to allow politicians to play with our information, just as the Do Not Call Register exempts them from its requirements. Time for a change!

                Commenter
                Branx
                Location
                Canberra
                Date and time
                October 26, 2012, 6:07PM
                • Welcome to post modern fact-free politics. No one in Senator Humphries office asked me if they could fool around with my personal details when I gave them over - at their request - so they could help me. Is the Liberal party unnamed 'spokesman' saying that unless a constituent spells out "you and your political friends can't help yourself to my personal data for your own ends" then it's OK for my elected representative to do just that? Is this what is meant by "the greatest care is taken to assure people's privacy"?

                  Commenter
                  fluffy
                  Date and time
                  October 26, 2012, 6:23PM

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