16 December 2011

Political Databases

The Age (Melbourne) reports that an injunction in the Victorian Supreme Court last night stopped state police from removing three journalists' personal computers from the Age, after "police from Victoria's e-crimes unit executed a warrant to search electronic and hard-copy files held by investigative reporters Nick McKenzie, Royce Millar and Ben Schneiders".

The search reflects the newspaper's November 2010 report on private information about voters held on an ALP database. Such profiling appears to be standard practice among Australian political parties.

Today's item states that -
In court last night, The Age's editor-in-chief, Paul Ramadge, said the removal of the computers, which contained a great deal of confidential information beyond the scope of the investigation, would cut to the heart of the paper's code to protect sources. He explained to Justice Karin Emerton that investigative journalists received a lot of highly confidential information from a range of sources and the release of such information, inadvertently or otherwise, would be extremely damaging.

After hearing evidence from Victoria Police about the challenge of analysing the computers at The Age's Media House premises rather than at police headquarters, Justice Emerton ordered that police be restrained from removing the computers, that they inspect them at Media House and that The Age provide access and assistance.

Earlier yesterday, detectives and IT experts from the e-crimes unit spent about seven hours at The Age in legal discussion and going through electronic and hard-copy files in the newsroom.

The Age revealed in November last year that the Labor Party had a database containing personal details of thousands of Victorians and that campaign workers had access to them prior to the election.

The search warrant executed by the detectives was aimed at determining whether Age staff had illegally tapped into that database.
Unsurprisingly, the publisher highlighted a public interest rationale, with Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood commenting that ''It would be extremely disappointing if quality journalism, the public interest in the story and the integrity of what we stand for - including protecting our sources at all costs - suffers because powerful individuals didn't like what we revealed'' . The Age's editor in chief commented that -
'While we are co-operating with police, we have expressed our grave concerns over the risk that our sources for the report may be identified.

We protect our sources at all costs. It is a code that cuts to the heart of everything we do as journalists. It is about trust. It is about ethics. If the sources for this report are identified through the police searches, even inadvertently, it will be a dark day for journalism.
In practice the maintenance of political databases is a dirty but not so secret activity that poses substantive privacy concerns. Politicians - and the organisations or commercial entities involved in maintaining/feeding those databases - would presumably claim that their activity is "in the public interest".

Louise Connor, state secretary of the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, is reported as commenting that the story was clearly in the public interest and that the reporters involved were bound by a code of ethics. Let's not, of course, ask inconvenient questions about the meaningfulness of that code of ethics. Connor indicates that ''I have discussed the story with them and their actions at the time and I am satisfied that they accessed the database only for the purposes of the story they published". Sleep soundly in your beds, kiddies, after that reassurance.

In 2007 I commented that the major Australian federal political party databases at that time appeared to be Electrac (ALP) and Feedback (Coalition), both based on the Australian Electoral Roll - which under amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth) is not available to commercial or non-profit organisations - and are installed across electorate offices to track voters who are in mail, telephone or fax contact with members of Parliament. Much data input involves electorate office staff. It has been claimed that the databases are valuable in identifying swinging voters (up to 30% of voters in marginal seats).

Peter Van Onselen & Wayne Errington in the 2003 'Electoral Databases: Big Brother or Democracy Unbound?' [PDF] and 2004 'Voter Tracking Software: The Dark Side of Technology & Democracy' [PDF] argued that the federal party secretariats target campaign resources (including telephone polling and direct marketing) at these swinging voters in marginal seats "at the expense of the majority of the electorate", thereby "skewing democracy" because -
the system allows the major parties to treat voters who strongly identify with either major party, particularly against their own, with contempt.
It was subsequently been suggested - a claim that hasn't been substantiated - that the Liberal Party has on-sold to its federal and state candidate databases containing private information about voters, in breach of federal electoral legislation.