25 Sep 2016

Political parties harvesting your data

From Mediawatch, 9:16 am on 25 September 2016
Labour Party baby number

Photo: Screen shot

The Labour Party has collected more than 54,000 email addresses with a clever Facebook widget that assigns every New Zealander born since the creation of the national health system with a birth number.

The widget is a direct copy of one created by the British Labour Party that proved popular despite the so-called birth number being no more than a very rough estimate.

John Key birthday FB post

Photo: Screen shot

Last month, the National Party invited Facebook and Twitter users to wish the Prime Minister, John Key, happy birthday but anyone wanting their well wishes to be passed on to the PM had to supply an email address first. More than 6,000 people did just that.

In both cases those filling in the forms are told, in the small print, that they'll be added to the parties' mailing lists. So is there anything wrong with the practice?

That's a question Mediawatch put to the Privacy Commissioner, John Edwards, and he replied in a written statement:

"The Privacy Act requires agencies to tell people what information they are collecting and how they will use it. In this situation, the website seems to have followed this part of the Privacy Act – there is a pretty clear statement telling people that they may be contacted by the Labour Party. It is obvious that Labour is collecting the email address and intends to use it to contact you. These kinds of gimmicks are increasingly  common among political parties.

These kinds of campaigns are not in breach of the law if they make it clear that the information is also going to be used for  a secondary purpose. People aren’t being forced or tricked into  handing over their email address - but it is a condition of engaging with this appealing widget. People can choose not to participate.

That doesn’t mean that it is best privacy practice. We encourage agencies to be transparent, and to maximise users’ control. In a case like this for example, you might let people use the widget to generate the “baby number”, and then get their express consent to use their email address to send political marketing."

Labour Party general secretary Andrew Kirton was unapologetic when Mediawatch asked him why the party had required users of the widget to provide an email before telling their "birth number".

Labour Party baby app

Photo: Screen shot

"We're a political party and we want to start conversations with people. Of course we could have done that but actually a lot of people who have been engaging with us on this baby number are people who are interested in health issues and we want to keep communicating with those people."

Earlier this year the party produced an online tool which told users how much house prices had gone up in their area. The tool required people to give their full street address before the statistics were forthcoming - despite the fact that the figures related to suburbs not streets. 

Andrew Kirton said he was unsure what had happened to that information but it wouldn't be used in any way that contravened privacy rules and the party would not use the addresses for canvassing purposes. 

The Green Party is currently circulating a petition on Facebook calling for greater funding for the Department of Conservation . Those signing the petition are given the option of not receiving emails.