Liberal Party harnesses i360 big data in time for 2019 Federal Election

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Do we really want to follow the U.S. down the big data path of privacy-breaching voter profiling? Rosie Williams comments.

AUSTRALIA'S Accountability Round Table recently fired-up over the introduction to Australia of U.S. data service i360 by the Liberal Party — raising questions about the potential consequences for both privacy and democracy.

The Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal caught the attention of the wider population, but less interest was roused by the use of other data brokers by political parties who, along with the media, enjoy exemptions from the Privacy Act 1988.

As a result of stories published on the potential for financial impropriety between the Liberal Party and their data service provider, Parakeelia, an Australian National Audit Office investigation was carried out.

The investigation found no financial impropriety in the purchase of information services by Liberal Party MPs or in donations from Parakeelia back to the Liberal Party.

The privacy issues, however, remain largely unexamined and, unlike Cambridge Analytica, i360 is a far more advanced product.

According to Greg Palast’s investigation, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Cambridge Analytica is more of a harbinger of things to come than an industry bad apple:

'… the dark art of dynamic psychometric manipulation in politics was not pioneered by Cambridge Analytica for Trump, but by i360 Themis, the operation founded by… no points for guessing… the Brothers Koch.

Rising from the ashes of the loss to Obama and learning from the Democrats' success using online strategies former chief technical officer for John McCain’s campaign, Michael Palmer, founded i360 in 2008. Significant funding came through a merger with the Koch Brothers’ voter database, Themis. With over U.S. $50 million since the merger, i360 began a long-term strategy, which is likely to see results in the coming 2018 mid-terms.

New York Magazine contributing editor Andrew Rice was given an insider’s view of the services provided by i360 in 2015:

When I visited the i360 office, an employee gave me a demonstration, zooming in on a map to focus on a particular 66-year-old high school teacher who lives in an apartment complex in Alexandria, Virginia… Though the advertising industry typically eschews addressing any single individual – it’s not just invasive, it’s also inefficient – it is becoming commonplace to target extremely narrow audiences. So the schoolteacher, along with a few look-alikes, might see a tailored ad the next time she clicks on YouTube.

(Details on i360's collected and shared data dictionary is available here.)

The first publicly documented uses of i360 by an Australian political party was by the South Australian Liberal Party in the March 2018 State Election, which marked an end to Labor’s 16-year term. i360 was also used in the Mayo by-election, which saw Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie returned with an increased margin. More recently, the Victorian Liberals were interviewed about their use of i360 in the lead up to the November election.

During her campaign, Sharkie promised a parliamentary inquiry into the use of data brokers by political parties, but since being returned to Parliament, has not followed through.

Western Australian Senator for the Greens, Jordon Steele-John moved a motion calling on political parties to provide information on any data provided by them to Cambridge Analytica or parent company, Strategic Communication Laboratories. The motion was rejected by Liberal Senator James McGrath.

Rather than moving to close the loopholes surrounding the use of data services by political parties, new rules were recently introduced to further obscure how MPs and political parties use and pay for information on voters:

A new Parliamentary Business Resources Framework was introduced which made several changes to non-travel-related work expenses, exempting "virtual town hall meetings, interactive voice response phone surveys, short messaging service (SMS) broadcasting and survey services, and information and communications technology and services" from reporting requirements, all of which fit the bill for political campaigning using i360 at taxpayers' expense very neatly.

Australia’s new Data Sharing and Release Act opens the way for private-public data sharing, raising the question of what data is used by political parties and governments. Little information is forthcoming from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet — the agency responsible for the Act’s implementation.

In response to my request for a list of all data brokers used by Commonwealth agencies and the purposes for which data is used, I was told only that:

'Prime Minister and Cabinet does not monitor all contracts entered into by government agencies but information on contracts awarded by the Australian Government is made available on AusTender.' 

I gather from this that there is no central oversight or register of the data brokers used by agencies of the Commonwealth Government or the information shared by these services.

Accountability Round Table’s Julia Thornton listed four credit agencies operating in Australia: Equifax, Experian, Dunn and Bradstreet, and Tasmanian Collection Service. Equifax was the subject of a significant hack last year.

As far as I can tell, no-one has addressed the issue of government buying in data and cross-matching it with other data they already hold to build profiles. This also applies to most privacy statements written by commercial companies too. "Buying in data" is never a protection mentioned. There is an issue of government surveillance and profiling there. 

Is it time for the exclusions enjoyed by political parties and the media under the Privacy Act 1988 to be reviewed?

Tom Sulston on behalf of Digital Rights Watch (DRW) thinks so:

'The fact that political parties aren’t subject to the privacy act is a gross oversight… While there are some decent uses for civic data, the privacy concerns are huge and appear to be poorly thought out in government. DRW is a big believer in gathering of meaningful consent when handling citizens’ data.'

As we look forward to a Federal election and the consequent roll-out of i360 across the nation, we need to consider whether we want to follow the U.S. down the path of voter targeting. If not, then we need to insist on transparency and accountability of the information gathered and how it is used. Not only our privacy but the strength of our democracy demands it.

Rosie Williams is a citizen journalist who runs privacy workshops at rosiewilliams.com.au. You can follow Rosie on Twitter @Info_Aus.

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