Yes, Senator Abetz, ABC's Vote Compass is indeed Orwellian

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has sponsored a political analysis tool that gathers information about your political beliefs and sends it — where, exactly?
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

It's not every day that I find myself agreeing with Senator Eric Abetz, but the Tasmanian Liberal was right to refer to Vote Compass, the heavily promoted political analysis tool on the ABC website, as "Orwellian" in a recent speech — though for completely different reasons than those the senator outlines in his ramshackle construction of splintered logic, the wildly oscillating outputs of his over-imaginative political bias detector, and a sprinkling of quotes from famous dead white men that his audience will perhaps have heard of, though never read.

Vote Compass is yet another in a long series of simple systems — some might say "simplistic" — for classifying people's political views, which began with the left-right spectrum that was invented during the French Revolution in 1789.

Users fill in a questionnaire asking how strongly they agree or disagree with a selection of political positions and, optionally, the importance of various policy areas and their opinions of the party leaders. Vote Compass then does some tricky mathematics (PDF) to show where the users' views sit on a two-dimensional chart in relation to the stated policies of the three major parties. The scales, used by a number of common political compasses, run from conservative to liberal or progressive on the two axes of social issues and economic issues.

The ABC says participants might be surprised to see how their views line up against those of the political parties. Abetz seems to think that if and when that happens, it'll be down to some underlying bias, which in turn is "tantamount to inviting users to consider changing their vote".

A secret conspiracy to change voter behaviour would indeed be Orwellian. But unlike the senator and his ever-effervescent political paranoia about all matters ABC, I'll go for a simpler explanation: People's party-political allegiances often come down to tribal loyalties, rather than their knowledge of the actual policies, which might be incomplete, out of date, or just plain wrong.

Where I think Vote Compass does get Orwellian, however, is on increasingly familiar digital privacy grounds. It collects detailed information on people's political beliefs, along with demographic data — such as a user's age, gender, location (to the granularity of postcode or electorate), education, and income levels — through a website that only pays lip service to privacy. The Vote Compass Privacy Policy is less than reassuring.

Vote Compass isn't run by the ABC, despite it appearing within the ABC's website, but rather by a "global non-profit network of political scientists" with a steering committee of academics from the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney.

"Your data may be disclosed to third parties for research purposes. Such data will only be supplied in anonymised, non-attributable form such that no party external to Vote Compass could use the data to personally identify you, or to contact you by any means," says paragraph 3 of its privacy policy.

That might sound OK at first glance, but consider this.

Vote Compass is included within the pages of the ABC's website at abc.net.au using an HTML iframe element. The application itself is actually running at australia.votecompass.com, which is deployed on Amazon's cloud.

Running within the application is all manner of JavaScript code from Google, Twitter, and Facebook — ostensibly to provide the usual "+1", "Tweet", and "Like" buttons, respectively, but of course also allowing those sites to track user activity. The ABC itself adds tracking code from imrworldwide.com, a domain used by Netratings Site Census.

While JavaScript is supposed to have mechanisms for preventing code delivered from one domain accessing data that's destined for another, we all know how hard it is to get this security stuff 100 percent right.

"There is no border between between an iframe and its container. Once you've loaded the iframe, all bets are off," one senior web developer told ZDNet.

But that's not the real problem. Nor is the fact that Vote Compass fails to use SSL encryption to secure the data link from a user's web browser to their server. Who'd bother trying to sniff this sort of data one user at a time?

No, the real problem is re-identification.

Vote Compass may remove personally identifiable information (PII) from its data before sharing it, but it'd be an easy task for a third-party researcher to re-identify users by cross-matching Vote Compass' data with their existing databases.

"Scientists have demonstrated they can often 're-identify' or 'de-anonymise' individuals hidden in anonymised data with astonishing ease," wrote law professor Paul Ohm of the University of Colorado in 2009. It's become easier since, for everyone from Google, Twitter, and Facebook to all the less well-known data mining companies on the planet.

After all, there are only so many 35-year-old females with a post-graduate degree and a salary in the AU$80,000 range in the electorate of Eden-Monaro. Do you have someone matching that description in your database? Do you have her email address? Problem solved.

The Orwellian scenario implicit in all this is that secretive data mining companies could match your political beliefs with the psychology of how you make decisions (gleaned from that "What breed of dog are you?" questionnaire you filled out five years ago) and use that to generate (through your favourite news site) a selection of persuasive news stories, opinion pieces, and advertising designed just for you — and you'd never know.

"The ABC might have the best intentions in the world, but their privacy policy is not Google's, for example. If they're loading Google's ad tracking stuff, and various analytic stuff, they're allowing those people to do whatever they like with whatever turns up in that page," the web developer said.

It makes a mockery of the very first sentence of the ABC's privacy policy. "The ABC is strongly committed to protecting your privacy when you interact with us, our content, products, and services"? Yeah, right.

Disclosure: Stilgherrian was employed by the ABC as a radio producer 1985-1991, and occasionally writes for the ABC's The Drum opinion website.

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