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​Australian pollies shut down calls for transparency over data use

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica Facebook data misuse controversy, the Australian Greens had its motion for transparency over politician data use blocked in the Senate.

Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John on Wednesday called on both sides of Australian politics to be more transparent about their use of data and the ties political parties have to data analytics firms.

Steele-John's requests were made after it was revealed Cambridge Analytica had used the information of 50 million Facebook users to help Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.

The young Greens politician from Western Australia told the Senate there was need for ongoing review of privacy regulations in Australia, including the collection, storage, and use of personal information by government, corporations, and other entities, and moved a motion that would demand all Australian political parties detail any involvement with Cambridge Analytica or its parent company SCL.

Such disclosure would require politicians to divulge if they had ever provided any government data, such as electoral rolls, to third parties.

The senator also asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to consider the collection and use of personal information for political advertising as part of its public inquiry into the impact of digital platforms on media and advertising markets in Australia.

Australian politicians, political parties, and organisations engaged by political parties are exempt from privacy laws under section 7C of the Privacy Act 1988, but Steele-John this week called for any exemptions extended to politicians to be removed from the Act.

Quoting a remark made by the privacy commissioner in 2000, Steele-John -- who last month probed the Department of Home Affairs, the Peter Dutton-led superministry created last year that sees the majority of the federal government's enforcement agencies under one roof, on its "cybermoat" strategy -- said the proposed political exemption to the Privacy Act was "not appropriate".

"The next layer of scum -- Cambridge Analytica, who seized the opportunity to scrape your details from Facebook, value-add with other big data, and build tools for political parties to microtarget you with just the right words at just the right time to buy your vote -- add to this the fact that the Australian Privacy Act does not apply to politicians, political parties, or those acting on their behalf, and you have a recipe for the wholesale violation of the privacy rights of Australian citizens," he told the Senate.

"Your private information and every detail about your life is being collected, stored, and used for purposes for which you do not give your consent. You are for sale, as your vote is for sale, and this is legal. This is within the terms of service of your platform and your country."

Steele-John's motion, however, was voted down by both Labor and the Coalition.

Australian Communications Minister Mitch Fifield also addressed the Cambridge Analytica issue in the Senate on Monday, following Senator Don Farrell asking what laws are in place in Australia to prevent companies illegally accessing the private information of Australian Facebook users and then using it in political campaigns in Australia.

"In terms of laws which cover the privacy of data, there are a range of laws which aren't directly within my areas of portfolio responsibility ... in terms of the arrangements specifically in relation to elections, that's something on which I'll need to take advice from, and consult with, relevant colleagues," Fifield said.

Pointing to an April 2017 report from The Guardian that said Cambridge Analytica met with representatives of the Liberal Party, government staff, and parliamentarians, including former Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Cyber Security Dan Tehan, to discuss the company opening a local presence, Farrell asked Fifield to confirm that no "improperly obtained private information about Australian Facebook users" would be exploited by Australian political parties.

"Obviously, I can't give any assurances about what the Australian Labor Party may do in terms of the data that they hold or, for that matter, how the Australian Labor Party obtained their data," the communications minister said in response.

"And, while it doesn't fall within my portfolio responsibilities -- responsibility for political parties, political organisations, including the Liberal Party -- what I can say is that the Liberal Party always complies with relevant law."

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