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BIG PARTIES - BIG DATA: Political Parties Should Be Stripped Of Their Privacy Protection Exemption

17 April 2022

Independent Senator Rex Patrick today called on the major political parties to end their exemption from national privacy safeguards and announced his intention to introduce legislation to amend the Privacy Act 1988 to properly safeguard sensitive voter information. 

“More and more the Liberal and Labor Parties are running election campaigns supported by 'Big Data' programs based on access to electoral roll information, harvesting of social media data, highly specific economic and financial information, and through partnerships with contracted polling and analytics agencies”, Senator Patrick said.  

“Yet none of this sensitive personal information is protected by Australia’s national privacy standards because more than two decades ago the Liberal, National and Labor parties self-interestedly agreed that they would exempt themselves from the data protection rules that apply to other large companies and organisations.”

“Parliamentarians will inevitably gather voter information, that’s part of engagement with constituents and the wider democratic process; however the industrial-scale data operations of the major parties raise significant privacy concerns.”  

“The exemption enacted through Section 7C of the Privacy Act applies to all registered political parties, MPs and Senators, local government councillors and all the contractors, subcontractors and volunteers working for them on election campaigns and other political processes.”  

“All are exempt from the legislated Australian Privacy Principles that set out national rules for data collection, handling, use and disclosure of sensitive personal information, as well as protecting information from misuse, interference and loss; unauthorised access or disclosure.”

“In more than two decades since this exemption was put in place, the volume of data available to the major political parties has grown exponentially as contractors harvest social media posts, opinion poll responses, telemarketing results as well as financial information drawn from sensitive sources including credit information and reporting agencies.”

“This amalgamation and correlation of huge quantities of personal data enables the big parties to precisely direct mail campaigns, political texts and emails at individual voters and households. Political spam isn’t random, it’s targeted at you using your own data.”  

“And given the richness of the available data, it’s no surprise that foreign intelligence agencies and criminal hackers have been keenly interested in the honeypots of personal information held by Australia’s major political parties.”

“In 2019 Australian intelligence agencies determined that China was responsible for a cyber-attack, not only on the Australian Parliament but also on the three largest political parties which hold vast quantities of confidential voter information."

“Despite this the major parties have resisted all attempts to apply legislated data protection safeguards to their activities. They have ignored calls by numerous privacy experts and the Australian Law Reform Commission for their privacy exemption to be ended.”  

“Legislative reform to ensure that our national privacy law applies to political parties and politicians is long overdue. Application of the Privacy Act to their operations would ensure that their collection and use of personal information is subject to specific, legally enforceable safeguards.”

“If re-elected as a Senator I will introduce a private Senators Bill to amend the Privacy Act to remove the exemption of politicians, political parties and their contractors as recommended by the Australian Law Reform Commission.”

“This will trigger a Senate Committee inquiry which will require the big parties to attempt to justify their special status. The Australian public will be able to see how threadbare their arguments are and the extent to which their self-interest has potentially compromised the privacy of millions of Australians.”