Over the weekend the simmering Cambridge Analytica saga finally boiled over, with a series of stories from The Guardian, including a long interview with Christopher Wylie, the man who blew the whistle on the data collection program he helped develop.

Analytica’s role in both the Brexit vote and the victory of the Donald Trump campaign in the US is now being questioned, after the program trawled Facebook profiles to create psychological and political profiles for hundreds of millions of voters, working up advertising aimed specifically at their psychological makeup. The ripples of these revelations will continue to be felt for some time.

Horrifying, right? As chilling as it is, it’s worth remembering this access of personal information is merely an extension of what our own Australian political parties have been doing for years, and are seeking to extend themselves.

What information do political parties have?

Without you giving your consent Australian political parties have access to your name, age, address and occupation as recorded on the electoral roll. In addition, parties can purchase information from Sensis and if you have interactions with electoral offices, or if you’ve told a party your voting intentions, that’s also stored. 

What else? Well, we don’t know exactly, because political parties don’t have to disclose whatever else they have on you. Conveniently enough, Australian political parties — that is, any political party registered under the Commonwealth Electoral Act, as well as anyone who works as a contractor or volunteers for them — wrote themselves out of our privacy laws, which in turn, struggle to keep up with technological developments, and our own willingness to share personal information online.

Those regulatory gaps, and the proliferation of information we deliberately or inadvertently share about ourselves online are being actively targeted by the major parties.

i360 and Nation Builder  

The election of the seemingly uninspiring South Australian Liberals over the weekend may owe a something to the “it’s time” factor — after 16 years of Labor — but another factor was undoubtedly their adoption of American data mining software i360. Used in several Republican campaigns, it describes itself thus

At the core of the i360 operation is a comprehensive database of all 18+ American consumers and voters containing thousands of pieces of individual and aggregated information that give us the full picture of who they are, where they live, what they do and what is happening around them.

Leveraging this and our capabilities in data science, analytics, technology development and advertising, we help clients take their efforts to the next level by embracing the concept of truly borderless data.

The software — which the SA Libs got training in and adapted to Australian electoral conditions — mines the data from the electoral roll and social media, creates tailored messages for individual swing voters and identifies hotstpots of within marginal seats.

A South Australian Liberal party source told InDaily it provided a script for them to work from: “It’s a dynamic platform — if you’re talking to an older male, the script might be focused on cost of living or capping council rates … if it’s a 35-year-old woman it might be early childhood education.” 

The Victorian Liberals are purchasing i360 too.

But it’s not the only program of its kind. The SA Libs have purchased Nation Builder, which hosts leader Steven Marshall’s website. Nation Builder creates profiles for anyone who leaves a comment on Marshall’s website.

Liberal Party documents obtained by InDaily describe it as “an electronic program where we can import emails and build profiles on voters”. “[Synched with emails and social media], it will track what people are liking, what they’re commenting on and add all this information to their individual profiles.”

Noting that commenters can be tagged with specific issues of interest, the document states, “This is not only helpful now, but will be very useful prior to an election when we want to target certain people with specific messaging.”

A reminder: this is all entirely legal. 

What do they want it for?

It’s important to note that the Liberal Party are not unusual in this approach — the Labor Party also use Nation Builder, and record the same sort of information through software called Campaign Central, for the exact same reasons. 

As observed by Daniel Willis in The Advertiser, “At the last state election, about ten seats were genuinely in play. In each, only about 30% of voters were not welded on to one party or the other. In total, that made about 75,000 people in a state of 1.7 million the true kingmakers on election day.”

All political parties are desperate to access and effectively communicate with that tiny, precious crescent of voters who actually decide elections. The success of the Liberal campaign in South Australia suggests this is not a model that will be abandoned any time soon. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey