Claim of breach of privacy arising out of Age alleged access to ALP database

December 17, 2011 |

In today’s Australian there is a claim of breach of privacy by a constituent arising out of the alleged hacking into an ALP database by Age correspondents.

The article says:

A VICTIM of The Age’s hacking of an ALP database has come forward claiming the newspaper breached her privacy, as The Weekend Australian reveals the Victorian Electoral Commission asked police to investigate the claims of illegal activity.

Claire Watson, 24, has expressed her concerns about how and why The Age accessed personal information about her, which she had agreed to share with a local MP but not with the newspaper. The public servant, who appeared in a story by Age journalist Royce Millar last year as part of the broadsheet’s investigation into the ALP database, said her views had been “distorted” and “words had been put in my mouth”.

“I feel my privacy has been breached by the journalist, not the ALP,” she said. “I agreed to share information with the ALP, but not with The Age. He seemed dodgy and was pleased with himself. He was so indignant with the ALP, but it is clear he was hacking my file. He was trying to whip me into outrage about it.”

Millar could not be contacted last night.

Watson received a questionnaire from her local member, Labor MP Bronwyn Pike, before last year’s state election, canvassing her views on certain issues. She completed the questions, telling the ALP her views on gay marriage, climate change and public transport.

She has declared she is not a member of the ALP or any other political party, but that she considered herself “left-leaning”.

“The journalist kept trying to put words in my mouth; he was saying it was outrageous, but I didn’t think it was outrageous,” she said. “The whole thing was weird. I tried telling him I wasn’t outraged as I understood large organisations keep that sort of data. I think it is reasonable and good practice to keep the data.”

She said she was more concerned Millar had then accessed the information.

“He knew a lot about me – my date of birth, where I lived, my phone number, opinions I had shared with a local MP . . . he was hacking into my file.”

She said she would not refuse an apology from Millar or the editor of The Age, Paul Ramadge, “but I’m not going to pursue one”.

“I do not harbour ill feelings towards the ALP. But the story was whipped up; like so many things in The Age, it was a construct; it was just fluff.

“He said, ‘How does it feel they have all this information about you?’ Well, it is creepy that he had all that information about me.”

An injunction by The Age against Victoria Police to stop the removal of computer equipment remains in place since Thursday’s eight-hour raid. Two detectives from the e-crime squad remained at The Age overnight to ensure none of the computer equipment, which had been pulled apart, could be tampered with.

A spokesman for the Victorian Electoral Commission confirmed to The Weekend Australian that it had been the first to raise the issue with police.

Electoral Commissioner Steve Tully is believed to have been concerned about the manner in which the database was allegedly penetrated by The Age.

The VEC’s involvement in the investigation is highly significant because until now it was assumed the only complaint came from within the ALP, or someone with heavy connections to the party.

The Weekend Australian believes that police have been given access to ALP records and computer equipment but that there are mixed views in the party about how to handle the hacking issue. This is because of the potential blow-back on the Labor Party if The Age were to campaign against the party. “It’s not something we wanted. There are some senior people who just want it to go away,” a source said.

However, the fact the VEC approached police means investigators will have to push ahead with their inquiries. Either way, it appears police were honour-bound to proceed given the potential offences at stake and the role the VEC plays as an independent and impartial statutory authority.

The Age yesterday reproduced the story in question in its newspaper. It was published on the eve of last year’s election and was widely criticised in Labor Party circles at the time because it esseaantially rehashed what was already in the public domain.

While both sides of politics have these databases, The Age story focused only on the ALP, which was seen by the then Brumby government as “outrageously” biased.

Party figures believe the story may have been responsible for the government losing power.

There is an element of “gotcha” and “take that” in the story.  It is hardly surprising given the very hard edged reportage of News Limited of Fairfax and the later reciprocity by Fairfax. It takes away from the effectiveness of the reportage but not the underlying issues.

There are two things that keep political parties functioning, money and information.  Members of Parliament have kept records of their constituents for time immemoriam.  Ceasar used some of his largess to buy and keep patronage.  Part of that involved knowing what the constituents wanted and needed.  The essence of Tammany Hall politics was providing for constituents, be it coal in winter, getting scholarships for sons and daughters of key voters and providing medical care for the sick.  All of that requires information.  Traditionally ward captains would build up networks and maintain records, usually in their heads.

In the modern era computer databases provide the memory banks that ward captains, branch presidents and local activists used to provide.  Constituent enquiries are logged and recorded and cross referenced.  Door knocking provides information which can be fed into the system.  Letters, by the bag-full, emails clogging up in-boxes of overworked MPs and general enquiries are all processed and fed into a database.  That data is used with electoral maps prepared from census material to give an idea of the makeup of an electorate.  As issues arise letters are prepared and sent to constituents who have particular concerns either to reinforce their support or possibly win them over.  It is important for most electorates and vital for those in marginal seats where a couple of hundred votes determines victory or checking the wanted ads.

There are obviously serious privacy issues involved.  Curiously, and sadly, the Privacy Act does not cover political parties.  That is relevant here it precludes investigation by the Privacy Commissioner.  The complainant though blames the Age and in any event the Privacy Act would not permit action being taken against the Age.  Which begs the question as to why an individual should not have an action in his or her own right.  Clearly taking action against a large media organisation would cause pause for thought for anyone but having the right is important.  Courts take individuals rights seriously but they must have jurisdiction to do something about it.  At the moment the common law is so underdeveloped as to be ineffective.  Taking action to expand the operation of Giller v Procopets would be difficult if not almost impossible for a sole litigant.  Hopefully enacting a statutory right of privacy will at least clarify the law and give someone the opportunity to exercise a right for a breach of privacy.

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