Taxpayer-funded surveillance: The Liberal Party database and i360 combine

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(Meme via @elliemail.)

i360 has been specifically formulated to sync and capture data from the Liberal Party database, "Feedback" – operated by Parakeelia Pty Ltd – which provides the software into which their data can be entered. It is owned by the Liberal Party.

Feedback consists of data obtained from door knocking, phone calls, visits to MP offices, email responses, online and call surveys, census data and social media data. This data combined with their software enables you to pinpoint swinging voters and marginal seats like never before.

Similar to Google Maps, you can click on a location and it will pull up everything you need to know about a person, including a script to read to them. Volunteers can make calls from home and door-knockers are saved time by the app providing directions to the next targeted voter to win over. The apps save time door knocking and calling, as you only target voters that you need to. 

Parakeelia transfers money back to the Liberal Party — how is i360 being paid for?

In 2016, it was revealed that Liberal MPs had been paying $2,500 each to Parakeelia out of their software allowance for its services. Labor MPs also paid about the same for their databaseCampaign Central, which isn’t owned by the party, but by third-party provider — Magenta Linas. Parakeelia started to transfer money from the company back to the party in 2010. In that year, it was $12,100, with amounts continuing to rise to $915,000 in 2016. This made Parakeelia the party’s biggest donor for that financial year.

There were concerns by Labor and the Greens that money was essentially being laundered through Parakeelia to boost Liberal Party coffers. However, a limited-scope review by the National Audit Office in the same year found that Parakeelia was not in breach of any electoral or parliamentary rules.

'If taxpayers are paying for it, then that would be all shades of wrong'

University of Queensland Law Professor Graeme Orr thinks that Parakeelia presents problems “deeper than strict legalities”:

“You have a question of a business built on taxpayers funds returning money to a political party: that’s problematic in a way we haven’t seen before.” 

Orr thinks that these issues would be avoided if they chose their IT provider through a tender.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any information after these financial years save for a vague tax return from 2016-17.

We know that i360 costs at least $25,000 a month, so, who paid for the SA Liberals to use it and how are the financially struggling Victorian Liberals paying for it? If taxpayers are paying for it, then that would be all shades of wrong and would take us further into unchartered territory.

New entitlement rule changes open up electoral budgets for software purchases

Following on from software allowances, late last year, new regulations for entitlement spending were quietly introduced by Special Minister for State Mathias Cormann. Instead of receiving a $2,500 software allowance, for the first time MPs can now spend some of their electoral budget on software and services. These services include robocalls, SMS and survey services 'subject to the limit of your office budget'.

Are taxpayers paying to have themselves politically targeted?

How the NationBuilder platform compliments i360 software

i360 software needs a platform as well as a database to work.

In early 2015, Indaily obtained documents that outlined how the SA Liberals were going to start training MPs and staff to use NationBuilder. NationBuilder is software that brings together services like WordPress, MailChimp and PayPal onto the same platform. It imports things like the details of interactions with an MP's office from the Feedback database and builds profiles on people by syncing this with social media. NationBuilder also creates websites with donation platforms and provides content management.

The documents describe the platform as 'an electronic program where we can import emails and build profiles on voters' and how

'... it will track what people are liking, what they’re commenting on and add all of this information to their individual profiles.' 

According to Indaily, the documents state:

'Anyone who leaves a comment on Steven’s website is "sucked in" by NationBuilder and a profile is created for them.'

NationBuilder has been used by Labor and some of the Greens for the last few years or so. According to the NationBuilder website, it’s used in Australia by a number of parties.

Indeed, NationBuilder is used by politicians of all stripes around the world. President Trump used it for his election campaign and it was the platform that was used by both sides of the Brexit campaign.

Strange misinformation campaigns during elections becoming the norm

To look at all of this in totality, I’ll briefly explain a disinformation campaign that was also in play during the South Australian election. An early voting website that appeared to be from the SA Electoral Commission (ECSA), was actually authorised by the Liberal State Director. The authorisation line was at the bottom of the website in a light font. There was also a range of ads distributed to mailboxes and posted on social media making out that they were from the ECSA. It is unclear who was behind all of it exactly. The website and flyers requested personal details from those that were targeted.

Three weeks before the election after receiving complaints, the ECSA said:

'South Australians are advised that, if they provide personal details in response to these flyers or via the website, these have not come to ECSA. ECSA advises that you should exercise extreme caution when releasing your personal information.' 

These are tactics that are designed to deceive you and to slyly take your data. Republicans have been doing it in America for years. Every vote counts and every dirty tactic available is in use in Australia now. Anything that you see online like email surveys, or in your mailbox that asks for your details, be very wary.  

Study about social media’s impact on elections, partly funded by a Koch Foundation

Facebook has recently announced a commission of researchers to study social media’s impact on elections to appease the groundswell that is building against their influence in elections. They will be given unprecedented access to Facebook data.

Financing for this is coming from foundations, including from one of the Koch brothers — the Charles Koch Foundation. There is understandably major concern about this — they’re known for not being the type of donors that just donate and step away, they like to be involved.

Facial recognition technology and new tools on the horizon

Despite all of the recent privacy controversy, Facebook wants to be able to run facial recognition scans without your consent. Legislators in America are still considering a change to the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA). For years Facebook has fought a lawsuit regarding the handling of biometric data, like fingerprints or facial recognition profiles. The plaintiffs argue Facebook’s photo-tagging system violates the law because photos that are uploaded in this way are done so without consent.

It’s of note that even if you aren’t tagged in a photo, their tech can find you. Facebook wants these consent protections neutered. Free access to pictures for years, including Facebook-owned Instagram, has no doubt sped facial recognition technology along.

'Are taxpayers paying to have themselves

politically targeted?'

Facebook has a new tech patent to determine social class — seriously (more here). They also have patents relating to eye activity and the tracking of your relatives.

Google also has a new tool out that will no doubt be shared and tweaked for further use in political campaigning. It’s called Plus Codes and it pinpoints locations extremely accurately. Google wanted to address the problem of high-density slums in India, where just 30 per cent have accurate locations for their addresses. There is a general election in India next year.

There is so much more that is already here and coming soon: the tracking of your car, listening to your phone calls, looking inside your house and the use of AI that studies CCTV footage to predict crime before it happens.

Is there hope?

Yes. Sir Tim Berners-Lee is working on a project called "Solid". He’s working on a solution of separating apps from the data that they produce. An app built using Solid architecture would ask users where they want to store their data, ownership of your data and access to all of the data you create. He believes that rather than our data being locked up with a company, we should have the choice of who to share or not share our data with. Who knows what innovations we could come up with ourselves and within our communities?

Governments entering the surveillance game, alongside Palantir, is chilling to say the least. Decisions based on algorithms without our consent and with no human oversight is a dangerous path to go down. A lot of predictive technology promise governments the world but most of it is largely unproven.

The current Privacy Act doesn’t protect us as it should. This isn’t Facebook being dodgy with their user terms, default options and making it impossible to opt out of things, it’s our own Government. Election-wise, its hardly democratic or ethical to target and influence voters secretly using their own data, perhaps even charging taxpayers to do so.

The misinformation tactics also need urgent addressing — it’s bad enough that our data is being used to manipulate us, to misinform us at the same time for a vote is cruel and immoral.

Read the first of this two-part report on data mining in Australia here

You can read more from Melanie McCartney on her blog, or you can follow her on Twitter @CartwheelPrint.

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