Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Database abuse by politicians

The Australian electoral roll is presumably the country’s most comprehensive – and, one would hope, accurate – database of its adult population. Presence on this database is, of course, compulsory and the only privacy-protecting measure available is registration as a “silent” voter; meaning that only one’s name, and not also one’s address appears on the roll. “Silent” voter status would appear to be strongly discouraged by the AEC; apparently nothing short of a credible threat of death would suffice.

Preventing rampant commercial abuse of this database is the fact that it generally cannot be electronically accessed. Anyone is free to inspect the paper version of the roll at an AEC office, but electronic access is restricted to the AEC, law enforcement, health authorities – and politicians (both serving members and political parties).

This is the AEC’s official reason for plenary access to the hard-copy roll:

The availability to view the roll is integral to the conduct of free and fair elections, enabling participants to verify the openness and accountability of the electoral process.

So be it – individual privacy is traded-off against public openness/accountability; nothing too new there. Less satisfactory, however, is the presumed explanation for politicians to be given privileged, electronic access to the roll – so that they can conveniently contact their constituents. This is a nonsense: “To the resident” letters can be easily delivered to each and every household in any given electorate, without the need (and wasteful extra expense) of such letters being personalised.

As it transpires, politicians’ access to the AEC database has indeed worked against the openness and accountability of the electoral process*. Particularly in marginal seats, likely swinging voters are identified and then courted, via methods that presumably include via the borderline brain-washing technique of push-polling. Such activity is rendered a cinch by the reverse-searchability (I’m assuming) of the digital roll being easily matchable to any listed phone number (the White Pages are not (legally) reverse-searchable, other than for law enforcement). In other words, politicians have so much more than an A-Z mail-out list – they have a street-by-street, house-by-house (with phone numbers attached) “map”, for door-knocking and telephone solicitation purposes.

Which is bad enough, IMO. But when the ability to electronically cross-match electoral roll data with other publicly-available information is factored-in, the case for effective democracy indeed looks bleak. Instead of the two major parties’ policies being compared in an open marketplace, unofficial bipartisanship is the go. Actual policy differentiation only happens in private, via specially-trained salespeople giving high-pressure, personalised-to-the-nth-degree shpiels to a few thousand identified swinging voters in marginal seats.

Welcome to the Roll.

* Michelle Wiese Bockmann "Database warning: pollies are watching you” The Australian 10 August 2004 (no URL)

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