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In Australia, political parties are exempt from privacy laws – and they’re making the most of it

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Regardless of the privacy scandals of the recent data-based campaigns, political parties in Australia are extensively using email addresses to find matching social media profile to combine with data from the country’s compulsory electoral roll data.

Australia is rather open when it comes to data gathering by political parties. Differently from the U.S.A, where only 60% of the adult population is registered to vote, in Australia voting is compulsory. Furthermore, political parties are exempt from privacy laws and have access to the electoral roll data – full name and address – of all 16 million voters.

Glenn Kefford, a political scientist that specializes in data-driven campaigns at Macquarie University, stated that “most Australians have little idea about how many data points organizations like political parties, let alone Facebook, have on each of them. They would be shocked and probably disgusted.”

According to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, it repeatedly asked the government for over a decade to change the exemption in light of a “changing digital environment and data collection practices”.

Many political parties, independently from their orientation, have used the services of the U.S. owned campaign software called NationBuilder. The privately held and self-proclaimed politically neutral software house launched its social media “match” in 2013 but had to stop offering it by default in Europe, due to the new digital privacy laws.

“It’s a very delicate line between innovation and privacy,” said Cowan-Brown, NationBuilder’s vice president of strategic partnerships. “The way customers are innovating is very cool and we don’t want to stifle that.”

After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook had to reduce third-party access to data, however, it still allows to import names and profile pictures through an email address match.

Facebook declined to respond to its interactions with NationBuilder but pointed out that third parties could no longer ask for personal information such as political views, relationship status, and education.

Twitter, on the other hand, lets customers import the user’s written bios, locations, websites, as well as their names, photos, and tweets when a customer is mentioned.

“It is a wet dream for marketers” reported Cowan-Brown.

According to Attorney-general Christian Porter, the privacy exemption was “designed to encourage freedom of political communication and support the operation of the electoral and political process”.

He did not respond when asked directly whether politicians had access to too much data.

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