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Inquiry call over Liberal 'data harvesting' concerns

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A prominent civil libertarian has echoed Opposition calls for an inquiry into Premier Steven Marshall’s admission visitors to government information services have been redirected via a Liberal Party-owned analytics platform – but the Government insists no data has been harvested.

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Ombudsman Wayne Lines today called the revelation “disturbing”, after the Government last night told the ABC the redirections had “accidentally occurred”, with neither the Government nor the Liberal Party being aware of them.

An ABC report that aired last night identified around 100 examples of state government links redirecting users through “stateliberalleader.nationbuilder.com” – a domain operated by the SA Liberal Party, with links found on media releases and across parts of the SA COVID–19 website, as well as on other state government department-run sites.

The Opposition was unconvinced that the redirection was inadvertent, with spokesman Tom Koutsantonis telling ABC Radio this morning: “The idea that public servants are being instructed to use licensed software that’s not licensed to the South Australian Government is very unusual – I can’t think of a single instance ever of that occurring.”

The Government this morning discontinued the use of NationBuilder for emailing its media releases, but a statement from Marshall insisted: “The Marshall Liberal Government has not been using state government websites to collect or track data for the Liberal Party.”

“No data is being collected or retained when clicking on the links referred to in media reports,” he said.”

Liberal state director Sascha Meldrum declined to comment today, referring InDaily to Marshall’s statement.

“As general practice, the SA Liberal party does not comment on campaign methods or software,” she said via SMS.

She did confirm that NationBuilder was licensed to the SA Liberal Party, which told the ABC it was being used as a distribution tool for media releases.

Under the former Labor government, it’s understood such releases were sent via AAP MediaNet – which was contracted through the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

The Liberals began using the NationBuilder platform in Opposition, with a leaked 2015 document revealed by InDaily detailing its potential.

It was described to MPs at the time as  “an electronic program where we can import emails and build profiles on voters”.

Synced with emails and social media, “it will track what people are liking, what they’re commenting on and add all this information to their individual profiles”.

Marshall’s own site, the document details, is “hosted” by NationBuilder.

“Anyone who leaves a comment on Steven’s website is ‘sucked in’ by NationBuilder, and a profile is created for them,” the document says.

The commenters can then be “tagged” as having an interest in certain issues, such as an Emergency Services Levy petition or compensation for CFS volunteers.

“This is not only helpful now, but will be very useful prior to an election when we want to target certain people with specific messaging,” the document explains.

These ‘target’ voters are sent “email blasts”, with the program keeping records on how many emails are opened and how many recipients subscribe.

In its own statement today, NationBuilder said it “exists to help people participate in the democratic process” and “we do not share, sell or ‘harvest’ data”.

“Our software is designed to scale authentic, one-to-one relationships,” a spokesperson said.

“As the Premier of South Australia Steven Marshall and the South Australian Liberal Party have explained, they use NationBuilder’s tools for campaigning, fundraising, email and data management.

“We are proud to help power that effort.”

They said the relevant website links “were created by a third party website analytics provider, not by NationBuilder, and no user data has been collected or redirected to NationBuilder’s platform or elsewhere”.

“NationBuilder is – and always has been – committed to the highest standards of privacy and data protection,” they said.

“Our software incorporates advanced privacy and consent tools that enable our customers to comply with relevant data protection laws, and the sanctity of data is core to our company.”

The SA Liberals also used the US-developed i360 software to retain a database on voters during the last election campaign, although it’s understood this contract was discontinued in Government because of the imposing cost.

Marshall said today that “as Nationbuilder has confirmed this morning, ‘this URL is not redirecting any users to NationBuilder’s platform – it is a reference link generated by Mimecast, a website analytics provider – and no data is being collected or retained when users click on these links.’”

He said it was “likely that when parts of media releases were copied and pasted into SA Government websites the original links were still being detected by Mimecast” but “importantly, no data is being collected or retained”.

“To ensure that there is no confusion amongst journalists or members of the public, the government will now use a different system for sending media releases to journalists,” he said.

But prominent lawyer and Council of Civil Liberties secretary Claire O’Connor SC said even a mistake was worthy of investigation.

“We need a transparent inquiry, so citizens know what occurred, what was done to rectify it and who knew – so we know it won’t happen again,” she told InDaily.

She said the episode highlights the need for a Bill of Charter of Rights in SA.

“We shouldn’t have to trawl through whether this is a breach of privacy,” she said.

“The state could start the process of ensuring its citizens are protected from this kind of potential invasion of privacy, by simply having a Bill of Rights… that governs the actions of state government and says ‘these things can’t happen and if they do they’ve breached it’.

O’Connor said “the thing about mistakes like this is we need a transparent inquiry”.

“The point is who am I to say whether it was done innocently or not, without proper transparent inquiries where all the evidence is weighed up? That’s how this process should occur.”

Lines told InDaily he could not investigate the Liberal Party itself but would have purview over government departments.

He said privacy principles were derived from a cabinet instruction that applies to all government departments, and a Privacy committee based in the Attorney-General’s department was now investigating whether that principle had been breached.

“They’re going to keep me in the loop, so I can be aware of what’s being asked – then I’ll make a judgement as to whether I should investigate the department for breaching those principles,” he said.

“It’s concerning – it smacks to me of either sloppiness, lack of attention to detail… or maybe there’s something more insidious happening.

“It does need to be looked into – we need to understand what’s been occurring.”

The Opposition will move for a parliamentary inquiry, with crossbenchers weighing up whether to support such a move.

Marshall told ABC Radio today it was “certainly not the case… that we were using this to harvest data”.

“I’ve checked with the State Director straight away and she made it clear that this was an inadvertent use of this platform and we certainly weren’t using it to redirect people to any Liberal Party platforms or domains,” he said.

“There’s been no collection or attention whatsoever, so we’re clarifying that with NationBuilder at the moment just to ease people’s concerns, but it was an inadvertent use of this… we’ve used this system for years and years and years and it certainly was not our intention whatsoever to use it for any data collection or attention purposes.”

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