How political parties legally harvest your data and use it to bombard you with election spam



Robin Worrall/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Erica Mealy, University of the Sunshine Coast

On Monday October 26, five days ahead of Queensland’s election, many voters received an unsolicited text message from Clive Palmer’s mining company Mineralogy, accusing Labor of planning to introduce a “death tax” and providing a link to an online how-to-vote card for Palmer’s United Australia Party.

Screenshot of campaign text message
Screenshot of a text message sent by Clive Palmer’s Mineralogy.
Author provided

Many recipients angrily wondered how Palmer’s firm had got hold of their contact details, and why they were receiving information that had already been thoroughly debunked.

It’s not clear how many voters received the message, although Deputy Premier Steven Miles accused Palmer of sending it to “hundreds of thousands of Queenslanders”. The message was also sent to many permanent and interstate residents not eligible to vote in the election.

Screenshot of election text message.
Not all of the recipients of this message were in the relevant electorate.
Author provided

But the issue goes deeper than Palmer’s dubious tactics, although his message was a particularly egregious example. This and similar messages have been sent to voters outside the relevant electorate. For example, one message from an independent candidate for the electorate of Macalister was received by a resident of Stafford.

In fact, there’s no law to prevent registered political parties — and the contractors and volunteers who work on their behalf — collecting your contact details and bombarding you with messages, regardless of whether you consented or not.

The problem of spam text messages was also prevalent during the 2019 federal election, when the tactics of Palmer’s United Australia Party in particular were called into question, prompting the party to pledge to stop the practice.




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From robo calls to spam texts: annoying campaign tricks that are legal


Political candidates, including independents and members of registered political parties, can request access to the Australian Electoral Commission’s database of voters’ contact details, to use in their campaign messaging. And it doesn’t stop there: they can also buy access to voters’ data from “information aggregator” companies such as Sensis, including voters’ names, home addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

Information aggregators also collect and analyse your publicly available data. Your Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tiktok or Instagram posts can easily be scraped. If your phone number or email address appears publicly, such as on an advert for a community event or public comment on a town planning submission, it can be collected. Few people realise how large their digital footprint really is.

This can reveal not only your contact details but also your political views. Publicly share a post about environmental concerns or social justice issues and you may have just pigeonholed yourself as a left-leaning voter, potentially putting you in line for targeted campaign messages.

Australia has laws against unsolicited spam, so how do political parties get away with this? Because they are entirely exempt from anti-spam legislation.

How politicians dodge spam laws

Private businesses have to abide by strict federal laws about data privacy and spam. The Privacy Act 1998 and the Spam Act 2003 were enacted to protect the public from unwanted and harmful information sharing.

The Privacy act regulates who may have access to your personal information, how it must be stored and what must happen should that data be compromised. For example, if your data is hacked you must be notified.

As summarised by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), Spam is unwanted marketing messages sent via email, text or instant messaging containing offers, advertisements or promotions. Permission to contact you by these means can be part of the terms and conditions of sale or use of a product, through a specific check box or if you make your e-mail or phone number public. Specific exemptions are made in the Spam Act for registered charities, government organisations, educational institutions and registered political parties.

Of course, in an open democracy it makes sense to allow elected officials to communicate directly with the voting public, particularly at election time. But aside from the nuisance and (legal) invasion of privacy, there are two main problems with the current free-for-all.

Problem 1: data security

If a data breach occurs for a non-exempt organisation, such as a bank or government organisation, any person who could be harmed from having information shared must be notified. The types of harm include the potential for identity theft and fraud.

But political parties, being exempt from privacy laws, are also exempt from this responsibility. This means if a political party has a data breach and shares your contact details, it doesn’t have to tell you.

Political parties reportedly maintain detailed databases of their constituents. These databases contain not just personal information held by the electoral commission, but any interactions with elected members, including complaints and contacts with electorate offices.

Problem 2: misinformation

Palmer’s text messages were a blanket salvo rather than tailored to particular voters. Hundreds of voters, and many non-voters, received the same message, despite repeated explicit denials from Labor it’s considering introducing a “death tax”.

In Australia, with an arguably free press and available fact-checking, the public can seek balanced, factual information if they are motivated to do so. But in the internet age, many people are vulnerable to “fake news”, whether through naivete or because of “confirmation bias” — the increased likelihood of believing information that fits with their pre-existing worldview.

What can you do about it?

Screenshot of election campaign message
Clive Palmer’s follow-up message sent on October 29.
Author provided

Until the law changes, there are limited ways to combat political text and email intrusion. The first is judicious use of the block and delete buttons and e-mail spam filters. While not foolproof, this does reduce the potential for receiving messages again from that same number or email. However, this tactic would not have helped avoid a second round of messages sent by Palmer on October 29 from a different number.

The second way to combat these messages is to prevent your data and opinions from reaching political databases. In Australia, there is currently no reliable service to help remove your data from the public view, so the best option is to keep it from getting out in the first place.

To do this, you must always read the terms and conditions before giving away personal data. If you have time, audit your entire public online presence to find all the places on the internet that store your personal data, including on all social media platforms and on personal, professional or community web pages. You must always remain vigilant about protecting your information, which is no simple task.The Conversation

Erica Mealy, Lecturer in Computer Science, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From robo calls to spam texts: annoying campaign tricks that are legal



File 20190116 152968 yjzfxg.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Politicians are allowed to spam you with campaign texts.
from shutterstock.com

Graeme Orr, The University of Queensland

“Make Australia Great.” So began several million text messages, sent last week from Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. Palmer’s bumptious campaign techniques actually predated those of Donald Trump.

But now he is aping Trump’s slogans and nationalism, if with a less reactionary, more third-way ethos. The chances of Palmer rising again, like the proverbial political soufflé, are remote. But what of his campaign methods?

Mass texting (I’ll dub it “mexting”) is nothing new in electoral politics. Fifteen years ago it proved controversial, during a local election on the Gold Coast. Late night texts were sent to target young voters while they were out on the town.

The message – which came from nightclubs, urging voters to keeping licensed venues open all hours – was lost in a backlash. In those days people paid not just per text they sent, but often to receive them as well.

Mobiles have since become more ubiquitous, intimate fixtures, and we no longer pay to receive messages, nor do many of us pay for individual texts.

Palmer’s party admits to receiving more than 3,000 complaints (which he claims were robo-calls by trade unions), and he says there’s more to come. But why risk alienating the very people you are reaching out to? And how, if at all, does the law regulate such in-your-face campaign techniques?

The law on ‘mexting’?

For once, the legal how is easier than the political why. The national Spam Act of 2003 regulates unsolicited electronic messages via telephone and email. But only commercial messages, about goods and services or investments, are prohibited.

Social and political advocacy is not treated as suspect. On the contrary, it is encouraged. The Privacy Act, in particular, lets MPs and parties collect data on citizens’ views, to better personalise their messages.

Exempting politicians from privacy laws is based on the philosophy that freedom of political communication is vital to Australia’s democratic process.




Read more:
Australia should strengthen its privacy laws and remove exemptions for politicians


Even when government agencies, charities or political parties offer services or solicit donations or membership, they are given a free hand. All they have to do is include a link about who authorised the message.

The licence to advocate, provided it is not done anonymously, is an old one under electoral law in English-speaking democracies. The obligation to “tag” messages enables the speaker to be traced and helps us discount the source of political opinions.




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That is merely a rule about form, not manner or content. When it comes to manner, there are laws against offensive messages via mass media – whether broadcast or sent by post. (Good luck enforcing that rule in the back passages of the internet.)

There are also, famously, rules against discriminatory “hate” speech.

When it comes to content, you need to avoid defaming people. But there is no general requirement of truth, in the media or in politics, outside rules against misleading parliament, and a limited offence of materially false, paid, election-time ads in South Australia.

At the 2016 general election, the Labor Party dismayed the government and many observers, by mexting as part of its so-called “Mediscare” campaign. The texts looked like they came from Medicare itself. The trick led to a tightening of rules and a new offence of “impersonating” a Commonwealth body.

Other in-your-face campaign methods

Mexting sits in a long line of in-your-face campaign methods. The century old tradition of handing out flyers lives on, as letterboxes in marginal electorates will surely testify later this year.

Another was the “soap box” speech, trundled around shopping precincts via a loudspeaker on the back of a ute. In the middle of last century it was so typical that, as a young candidate, Gough Whitlam is said to have campaigned this way via a boat, to reach outlying suburbs not well serviced by roads.

Sound trucks show the ‘soap box’ method of campaigning is still used in Japan.
Wikimedia Commons

It is all but dead today in Australia, but lives on in the “sound trucks” of Japan.

More recent innovations are the ubiquitous “direct-mail” – a personalised if expensive variant of letterbox stuffing. Plus the “robo-call”, where a pre-recorded message is automatically dialled to thousands of telephones. I well recall picking up my landline, over dinner in 2007, to hear John Howard greet me. He happily ploughed on despite my unflattering response.

As for how, practically, a campaign assembles thousands of valid mobile numbers… well, Palmer’s party says it has no list. It may have hired a marketing firm to send out the texts. Commercial entities, notoriously, collect and trade files of phone numbers, postal and email addresses, and more.

Still, why? A cynic might say that for Palmer, any notoriety is good notoriety. His gambit has people talking about him again. Minor parties expect to alienate people: their goal is to attract a few percent of the vote.

Why major parties employ such tactics is another matter. They have to build broader coalitions of voters. But there is a cost-benefit analysis at work. Electronic messaging can reach swathes of people more cheaply than broadcast advertising, which in any event lacks the reach it once had. And negative advertising, like Mediscare, tends to work.

As it is, modern parties lack mass memberships and cannot rely primarily on organic influence or door-knocking by activists.

So while spamming, in text or audio, seems perverse – and is unlikely to be as effective as targeted or viral messaging on social media, or community-based campaigning – it won’t disappear.

For my part, I won’t grumble about a text from Mr Palmer popping up in my pocket. It beats his huge yellow billboards in terms of a blight on our public spaces.The Conversation

Graeme Orr, Professor of Law, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Serial Spammer Will Not Be Allowed to Post His Spam Here


From time to time you come across self-serving fools who like to troll websites and splash their spam all over it. My Blogs suffer from this constantly and there is one who is constantly trying to spam a number of my sites day in and day out. I won’t mention his name as I don’t intend to give him any publicity or to in any way encourage visitors here to seek him out. I moderate my Blogs and only allow comments through that aid discussion of topics here in a useful manner, that don’t contain material I deem offensive, and that help to develop a sense of community. So if you must continue to post your material in the comments sections of my Blogs, rest assured that they are never read by visitors (or myself) and will never be read by them (or me). They are simply deleted and all of your time wasted. It will always be so.

Sales People


I have a real problem with salespeople, whether they be those that ring you on the phone or harrass you at the front door of your home. This type of real-life SPAM is just too much for me. I really have it in for it. If I want to buy something, I’ll go to your shop, give you a call or visit your online shop. I don’t need the hassle of a commercial invasion of my privacy.

Thankfully now you can get your name on a register in Australia – set up by the Australian Government – to say you don’t want telephone sellers ringing you at all hours of the day. They are supposed to listen to that. The likely scenario is that I’ll be getting increased stormtroopers at the door as a result of the register. I had my first vacuum cleaning contractor taking up that option today (they used to phone).

With the register, there are so many exceptions to the ban on people ringing those who have added their name to the register, you wonder if there is really any point to it in the long run. Why would anyone enjoy the prospect of political parties ringing you to try and convince you to vote for them – this is allowed because it is in the public interest. I have no interest in a politician ringing me and saying, ‘I’ve taken this extraordinary … (as John Howard did in the last election).’ I’m sure we will hear him trying to convince us why it is in the public’s best interest to return the government in the coming election via my telephone. If I have to ring message bank to hear that I wonder if he will be pay the bill as I didn’t ask for the disturbance? Unlikely, as the money raised from such ventures has gone to pay for his advertising via this medium in the past anyhow – you can’t win. Perhaps I can give him a call and explain to him why I have taken the extraordinary step to call him at his residence when he is relaxing at home and let him know how much I dislike many of his policies ~ I don’t think he would see the irony somehow. He certainly didn’t enjoy the ‘Chaser’ team replaying his message to him everywhere he went one day recently.

Salespeople – give us a break.

Changing Servers


Well, it had to happen – I’m in the process of changing servers for my wilderness site. Why? Way too much spam rubbish from my ISP account – the curse of the net! Of course, my site goes with the ISP.

The new site: Kevin’s Wilderness Journeys