Data in politics & government

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Politicians should be included in the rules that we expect the public and private sectors to abide by. We cannot lead and represent Australians when we do not adhere to the rules that we have made for them, as this merely plays into the notion that politicians cannot be trusted.

Former Senator Natasha Stott Despoja

ART’s Objective

To ensure that political and democratic process is not corrupted by vested interest using the extensive new digital capacity for surveillance and manipulation of voter behaviour.

The Current Problems

Powerful vested interests including those of sectional or partisan parts of government can wield data analysis and digital and media tools against citizens democratic rights to choose the government of their own preference and in their own interests.

Political parties collect extensive data on personal circumstance and political preferences. There is very little control over this by current law.

Political data collection is aided by the accessibility of government data that can be used to re-identify individuals by comparing their data with other readily available data sets. Such techniques are intensified by the reach of digitisation as a day to day tool for all aspects of life transactions and communication.

Undetectable use of data and algorithmic tools combined with sophisticated marketing and socio-psychological techniques can induce citizens to adopt political behaviour change crafted to advance the interests of political parties and governments.  This is especially the case with digital targeted political advertising., Current regulation does not recognise the power of such advertising nor the very small audience segmentation possible, nor can it police social media compliance with existing law.

Government data collection can also be used to increase the inequality and powerlessness of whole classes of citizens, to the detriment of themselves and the exercise of their political interests especially from those who most use their services when combined with digital compliance methods controlling use of those services or profiling users.

Citizens have few means of redress against digital harms to themselves. Loss or misuse of identity information is permanent. Data used by governments and political parties represents people’s lives, their political inclinations and their thoughts and behaviour. It is intimately connected to who they are, and should belong to them. It cannot be replaced like a credit card or password, if lost or released.

Nor does democracy have good protections against misuse of these new techniques.  This puts very powerful tools in the hands of a few who can misuse them. They need regulation.

The reforms that are needed

  • A ban on covert techniques of digital political influence. If such techniques are to be used they should be labelled as such.
  • Reform of the Electoral Act, the Federal and States’ Privacy Acts, the Spam Act and the Do Not Call Register and similar Acts with political exemptions, so that governments and parties must conform with their provisions.
  • Close independent supervision of data collection by parties and governments, along with less data collected and more user control.
  • Recognition of consequences to citizens by the public service and government that no personal data can be permanently de-identified.
  • Recognition consequences to citizens by the public service and government that personal data that can be re-identified, once released, cannot be retracted.
  • Strict controls over “profiling” – both of compilation techniques and of political and government use of profiles.
  • Better policing of digital political advertising to cover social media and microtargetting and a requirement that detailed authorisations be explicitly shown.
  • Rigorous risk assessment and controls on governments buying in of data from third party providers that can be used for behaviour targeting or data de-identification of citizens.
  • Ban on-selling citizen data to third party organisations that do not have permanent, auditable and accountable ethics committees in place to govern the use and products of such data (as do universities, medical researchers and science bodies at present).
  • Provision of citizen opt in rights to data collection and release of their data, and to control the flow of their own data information at all times.
  • Decentralisation of government data storage so illegal access does less damage.

Links to ART articles on Data in Politics and Governance.

Facial recognition for solar panels is a sinister step too far

By Julia Thornton

July 29, 2019

Facial recognition is now required by the Victorian state government to access solar panel rebates. It looks like a joke. What? So criminals won’t put solar panels on their roofs?

It is, unfortunately, true. Solar Victoria, the site where Victorians claim the solar rebate scheme, launched a trial of smartphone-based facial recognition technology at the start of July. It is to replace the 100-point paper-based identity check for participants to prove their eligibility for the solar rebate.

So what data is collected?


Electoral roll makes you a digit in the data economy

By Julia Thornton

January 28, 2019

As if we needed it, the Age gives more evidence of the government’s cavalier attitude to our data (Age Jan 26th).

The revelation is unsurprising that voter details from the Electoral Roll are passed on to corporate third party entities who specialise in “data monetisation”, on-selling data packages to credit agencies, political parties and any corporation with a marketing budget large enough.

This boundary pushing exploits a loophole in the Commonwealth Electoral Act, which broadly bans such trade. However electoral data may be used to identify people fraudulently using financial services, money laundering or financing terrorism. Any other disclosure or commercial use is specifically banned.


Big data is an unguarded corner of democracy

By Julia Thornton

September 22, 2018

When political parties collect campaign data on their potential voters, it may provide forensic clarity of detail for politicians on how to influence the vote, but for voters it draws a new curtain obscuring their view of how politics is influenced.

The fact that political campaign methods are in the midst of a digital revolution is not news. It’s glaringly apparent that “old” media no longer has the reach to voters it once commanded. But new access by parties to new forms of political influence demands scrutiny and regulation if it is to fit with our principles of democratic process.

Most voters are unaware of the exemptions from the Privacy Act for political parties and related entities, and the hole in the reporting of how parties pay for such software.


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