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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Political parties and the media both take comfort from privacy law exemption

Melbourne's Herald Sun and The Age are hard at it over the latter's access to the ALP's Eleczella voter database just before last year's state election, summarised here by George Megalogenis in The Australian, with some important issues surfacing about a stolen computer and ethics following publication of what The Age got up to.

The Age first ran with its foray into the database last November under the headline "Revealed: How the ALP keeps secret files on voters" but Peter van Onselen began writing about this ALP "secret" and the Liberal Party equivalent in 2003.

Don't expect the Privacy Commissioner to investigate the following privacy invasive searches of the millions of entries in the database as the players in this are a media organisation and a political party, both exempt from the Privacy Act. According to an internal audit The Age:

ACCESSED the database on November 18 and using two computers logged in repeatedly over the next four days, the final access being on Monday, November 22.
ENTERED a series of fake names as part of the log-in process using the password.
COPIED the names of everyone in one seat who was concerned about the issue of abortion.
TRAWLED the database to find references to the words gay, lesbian and Muslim as well as Liberals and Greens.
SEARCHED for the names of donors to the ALP.
Attempted to search the personal details of Victoria's Police Commissioner Simon Overland, 3AW's Neil Mitchell, the ABC's Jon Faine -- as well as his son Jack Faine, former Melbourne lord mayor Kevin Chamberlin and pollster Gary Morgan.

Don't worry. Megalogenis reports the senior editor at The Age as saying:
At no stage did we misuse or improperly disseminate the private details we witnessed on that database.
As to the ALP treasure trove of personal information about voters, in 2008 the Australian Law Reform Commission recommended the exemption from the Privacy Act- for collection, accuracy, use, safe storage and disclosure of personal information- enjoyed by political parties should be removed:
41.54 In the interests of promoting public confidence in the political process, those who exercise or seek power in government should adhere to the principles and practices that are required of the wider community. 
The federal government tells us this recommendation will be considered sometime in 2012. That will be four years after it was made, six years after the then government commissioned a review.
And what price a "courageous" decision on this one even then, given an ALP submission to the Commission that argued [4.36]
the exemption for registered political parties under the Privacy Act is essential to the conduct of election campaigns and facilitates the effective communication of the policies, ideas and visions which underpin our democratic processes.
Or on other ALRC recommendations for change to the conditions attached to privacy self regulation by media organisations, and for legislation for a statutory cause of action for a serious unwarranted breach of privacy, also down for consideration.... in 2012?

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