Consumer watchdog may investigate if Facebook data illegally used in Australian elections

Helen Davidson
Fifty million Facebook profiles were harvested for data analytics company Cambridge Analytica to help Donald Trump with the US election. Photograph: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

The Australian consumer watchdog could investigate if data analytics companies used harvested Facebook data illegally to affect elections, amid revelations about the firm Cambridge Analytica.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is currently examining the impact of search engines and social media on competition in the media and advertising markets.

Guardian Australia understands the inquiry’s remit could also allow it to examine concerns about the impact of Facebook and firms like Cambridge Analytica on local political advertising.

Cambridge Analytica helped Donald Trump win the US presidential election and is currently under investigation in the US and UK, including into any possible role in the European Union referendum.

On Sunday the Guardian revealed how whistleblower Christopher Wylie created a “psychological warfare tool” used by Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, which harvested Facebook data from more than 50 million people. The collection of the data was authorised but Facebook’s policy barred it from being sold on or used for advertising.

Facebook has since suspended Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL.

On Tuesday the Australian Information and Privacy Commission demanded Facebook provide information on whether any Australians were affected by the unauthorised use of Facebook profile data.

Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim said he was aware of reports that Facebook profile information “was acquired and used without authorisation” and he would “consider Facebook’s response and whether any further regulatory action is required”.

The Privacy Act confers the commissioner with a range of regulatory powers including to “investigate an alleged interference with privacy”, and wideranging enforcement penalties, including seeking civil penalties, he said.

The office of the treasurer, Scott Morrison, who called the ACCC inquiry, referred questions from Guardian Australia to the commission. The terms of reference cannot be changed but a spokesman for the ACCC said an issues paper published last month outlined the matters the inquiry was considering.

The paper called for public submissions, including on “the extent to which consumers understand what data is being collected about them by digital platforms, and how this information is used”.

Labor’s communications spokeswoman, Michelle Rowland, said informed consent and the collection and use of consumer data was “a recognised source of concern”.

The Greens’ digital rights spokesman, Jordon Steele-John, urged the ACCC to consider whether it could investigate the use of data harvesting in elections. He said there were “significant questions to be answered about where and how the data used in these campaigns was obtained, and whether it was legal to do so”.

Justin Warren, a spokesman for Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), said his organisation was likely to compile a submission for the ACCC. Warren said the kind of behaviour revealed over the weekend “threatens to undermine democracy”.

“This has now been publicised that not only are these organisations gathering data from people who didn’t necessarily give informed consent, in fact informed consent seems to be absent,” he said. “We don’t think Cambridge Analytica is the sole form of this data gathering and attempted manipulation … We’re concerned other political organisations are dealing with other firms doing the same kind of thing.”

On Monday EFA and other organisations called on all Australian political parties to detail any involvement with Cambridge Analytica or SCL, including whether they had ever provided any government data, such as electoral rolls.

In April last year Guardian Australia reported Cambridge Analytica was looking to set up in Australia, and had met members of the Liberal party, including the then veterans affairs minister, Dan Tehan. The 2017 meeting was raised again by Labor in Senate question time on Monday.

Asked for his assurance that any information from Australian Facebook users would not be improperly exploited by political parties, the federal communications minister, Mitch Fifield, said the Liberal party always complied with the relevant law.

A spokesman for the Liberal party’s federal secretariat told Guardian Australia: “We are not using Cambridge Analytica.”

The federal Labor and Greens parties also said they do not use Cambridge Analytica.

Most political parties legally use data analytics. The South Australian Liberal party engaged the services of i360 for its successful state election campaign. A report in the Australian described the tool, which among other methods was “harvesting social media data”, as having “revolutionised” the SA Liberal party’s marginal campaigning.