SYDNEY/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Australian political parties are using voter email addresses to find matching social media profiles then combining them with the country’s compulsory electoral roll data, illustrating how privacy scandals have done little to slow the march of data-driven campaigning.
While the use of data and public profiles from Facebook, Twitter and other social media for political campaigning has become widespread globally, Australia is one of the most open countries in the world to online information gathering by political operatives.
“Most Australians have little idea about how many data points organisations like political parties, let alone Facebook, have on each of them,” said Glenn Kefford, a political scientist at Macquarie University who has written extensively about data-driven campaigning.
“They would be shocked and probably disgusted.”
Australia, which goes to the polls on May 18, is one of the few Western democracies where voting is compulsory.
What’s more, Australian political parties and candidates are exempt from privacy laws covering access to the electoral roll data - full names and addresses - that all 16 million voters are required to provide.
In the United States, just 60 percent of adults are registered to vote, limiting the number of voters whose electoral roll information can be dragged into a data profile.
Last year, Europe introduced sweeping laws requiring political organisations to get specific permission before scraping a person’s data from another website.
Australia’s government, however, rejected calls for a review of its exemption from privacy laws.
The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner said it has been asking the government for over a decade to overturn that exemption and “continues to hold the view that this exemption should be re-examined in light of the changing digital environment and data collection practices”.
Branches of the left-leaning Labor and Greens parties, the conservative Liberals and the rural-focused Nationals have all hired consultants to run the U.S.-owned campaigning software NationBuilder, a Reuters analysis of party websites shows.
Privately held NationBuilder, which counted several senior Facebook personnel among its early investors and markets itself as politically neutral, launched its social media “match” function in 2013 but stopped automatically offering it in Europe in 2018 due to new digital privacy laws.
NationBuilder’s vice president of strategic partnerships, Toni Cowan-Brown, said the company was looking at spreading its “model of privacy by default and consent” beyond Europe but it had not stopped offering its “match” function by default in Australia.
“It’s a very delicate line between innovation and privacy,” Cowan-Brown said. “The way customers are innovating is very cool and we don’t want to stifle that.”
In 2018, amid a political data harvesting scandal involving now defunct British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, Facebook made it more difficult for third party apps like NationBuilder to harvest some user data, although it still lets them import people’s profile photo and name based on an email address match.
NationBuilder is trying to regain access to Facebook event RSVPs, the only data it uses that is affected by the new policy, said Cowan-Brown. Unlike Cambridge Analytica, the firm does not pull data on a person’s emotions or habits, Cowan-Brown added.
NationBuilder customers can also collect the names of people who “like” or comment on their Facebook posts.
Facebook declined to comment on interactions with NationBuilder specifically, but said third party apps could no longer ask for access to personal information such as religious or political views, relationship status, education or work history.
The company has also limited access to information in its groups, pages and events features, a spokeswoman said.
With Twitter, NationBuilder customers can under certain circumstances import a person’s written profile bio, location, personal website, as well as their name and photo and tweets when a customer is mentioned, Cowan-Brown said.
Twitter said its data reflected information that users choose to share publicly.
“Our API (application programming interface) provides broad access to public Twitter data that users have chosen to share with the world,” Twitter said in an emailed response to Reuters.
The major parties also prospect for email addresses with social media “petitions” about hot-button topics, some collecting emails addresses without a person typing it, thanks to other software linked to the person’s Facebook account.
“It is a wet dream for marketers,” said Curtis Harrison, a NationBuilder consultant who has worked on Australian political campaigns for five years.
“You start off with an email address, and once you get that email address you get a name. And once you get a name you get a phone number. Once you get that phone number you get more and more and more.”
Attorney-General Christian Porter said in an email the exemption was “designed to encourage freedom of political communication and support the operation of the electoral and political process”. He did not respond to a question about whether politicians had access to too much voter data.
A spokesman for the Labor Party’s shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said the political exemption was “put in place to facilitate political engagement, which is a foundation of our system of representative democracy”.
When the Australian Labor Party posted on Facebook a video of two of its leaders bantering on a campaign bus last month, artist Jaymie Faber was one of 1,600 people who clicked “like”, automatically sending the party’s NationBuilder database her name and Facebook photo.
From there, the party could manually enter her public profile information, which included her employment situation and home city, to match with electoral roll information.
“While I never intended for the information to be collected into a database, I also accept that I had the knowledge that it could be a possibility,” Faber told Reuters.
“I don’t believe that it should be allowed or legal to be collected in such a matter but unfortunately it is.”
Reporting by Byron Kaye in SYDNEY and Katie Paul in SAN FRANCISCO. Additional reporting by Paresh Dave in SAN FRANCISCO. Editing by Lincoln Feast.