Ever wondered what political parties do with the data they collect on you? Its amazingly unclear, especially since the Privacy Act does not apply. Equally obscure is how they pay for the software and analysis and what links the software has with other data collection companies.

Julia Thornton of Accountability Round Table has written an op ed for the Sunday Age on this issue.

Big data is an unguarded corner of democracy

When political parties collect campaign data on their potential voters, it can 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.

Volunteers working for Environment Victoria in Frankston canvass people on the street. Political groups are increasingly using data from petitions and social media to target voters.
Volunteers working for Environment Victoria in Frankston canvass people on the street. Political groups are increasingly using data from petitions and social media to target voters.Photo: Jason South

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 demand scrutiny and regulation if they are 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. The links between the designers of the software and other political entities based in the US are also of concern.

The acquisition this month of i360 software by the Liberal Party (The Age, 16/9)  follows on from its use to help win the South Australian election. The Victorian Liberals are also using it.

What does i360 collect? Here is what i360 says about itself: “i360’s comprehensive data is a unique combination of hard data points and predictive modelling. Our dataset incorporates extensive political identification, coalition and membership information collected by way of in-person, phone and online surveys, as well as through partner relationships in addition to lifestyle and consumer data collected from multiple top-tier providers. Our data is further enhanced by our suite of predictive models, filling in gaps and helping us build the most complete profile for every individual possible.”

The phrase “partner relationships in addition to lifestyle and consumer data collected from multiple top-tier providers” refers to data brought in from unnamed other data-miners, who may be social media services like Facebook or commercial entities like credit card providers or customer loyalty programs.

According to the Age report, the i360 program can merge information with the Liberals’ existing campaign database, “Feedback”, providing instant access to masses of historical information about voters.

None of this is subject to the Privacy Act since political parties are exempt.

It has been reported that “the party pays a monthly service fee of around $20,000” to use the i360 software. This appears to be the cost to the SA branch alone.

The second program, “Feedback”, with which the i360 program merges information, is wholly owned by the Liberal Party through a company called Parakeelia, and as at August 30, 2016, had three Liberal Party directors. Parakeelia’s sole purpose is to develop, run and maintain Feedback.

Peter Thiel is one of the founders of Palantier.
Peter Thiel is one of the founders of Palantier.Photo: Supplied

Feedback also cost at the time, $2500 for each parliamentarian or candidate to use. This payment itself caused a flurry of interest in 2016 when it was first reported, because it was rumoured that this money was being paid from candidates’ electoral allowances, and thus from taxpayer funds.

This claim, made by Labor’s Brendan O’Connor, was subsequently investigated by the Auditor-General and found not to be in breach of either the Commonwealth Electoral Act or the parliamentary entitlement obligations.

But the Auditor-General’s response in September 2016 commented, “While the Australian Electoral Commission advised that it is often problematic to determine whether payments are donations or payments for services received, the reporting entity must classify receipts above the threshold as ‘donations’ or ‘other’.”

Further, the Auditor-General points out that, “As most of Parakeelia’s income falls below the disclosure threshold, payments from individual members of Parliament are not declared.”

Clearly $2500 per user could slip under the bar very easily; $20,000 for the use of i360 can similarly be broken up and spread around individual electoral office costs.

However, since January this year these steps are no longer necessary. 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.

It remains murkily obscure as to who now pays for Feedback and i360.

A more sinister issue is the genealogy of i360. Much of its development was funded by the Koch brothers. The US online magazine Politico reported in 2014, “The least-known vehicle for the Kochs is a for-profit company known as i360, started by a former adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign after McCain lost to Barack Obama in 2008. Subsequently, it merged with a Koch-funded data non-profit. The Koch-affiliated Freedom Partners, formed in late 2011, eventually became an investor.”

It is unclear what relationship there is between i360 and Palantir, Peter Thiel’s secretive data juggernaut that serves the US military and policing. However, both Thiel, who owns PayPal, and the Koch brothers were active campaigners for Donald Trump, Thiel being one of the initial members of Trump’s administration.

We have no way of knowing what back doors there are between i360 and Palantir or if indeed there are any. This is outside our jurisdiction or capacity to check.

The use by political parties of data collection software is an almost completely unguarded corner of our democracy, and in desperate need of some fences around both political data use and party expenditure on data analytics.

Dr Julia Thornton is a member of the Accountability Round Table with a special interest in digital accountability of governments and parliaments.

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