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With big data in politics, activists worry about discrimination

Sinar Project coordinator Khairil Yusof said profiling Malaysians for better political campaigns or for better government policies did not constitute abuse of one’s personal identification data. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Sinar Project coordinator Khairil Yusof said profiling Malaysians for better political campaigns or for better government policies did not constitute abuse of one’s personal identification data. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, April 13 ― Civil society groups have grave concerns about government discrimination against citizens, as both Barisan Nasional (BN) and Opposition parties move to profile voters through big data analytics.

Sinar Project coordinator Khairil Yusof said profiling Malaysians for better political campaigns or for better government policies did not constitute abuse of one’s personal identification data, which is information that can identify a person such as name, identity card (IC) number, address, phone number, or passport number.

“It is abuse by government if [the] elected government uses profiling data for policies that punish voters that are not likely to vote for them,” Khairil told Malay Mail Online.

Malay Mail Online recently published a special series about how Malaysian political parties on both sides of the divide have started using data analytics services from companies and think-tanks since the 13th general election to profile voters, in order to predict how they will vote and to identify issues that concern them.

PKR-linked big data analytics outfit Invoke, for example, conducts telephone surveys with over 100,000 respondents and gathers “millions of data” on voters from their age, residential post code, gender, race and religion, to their political inclination and stand on certain issues.

Other parties like Umno say they have access to voters’ names, IC numbers, phone numbers and addresses. Two companies, who say they are working with local parties for the 14th general election, monitor what people talk about certain topics or candidates on social media.

The electoral roll, according to politicians, contains information like the voter’s name, IC number, and address; and earlier releases of the roll purportedly have details of one’s race and religion too.

Khairil pointed out that Malaysia already had the problem of the “pervasive” use of IC numbers.

“This single identification number is used everywhere in our daily lives, whether dealing with government or private sector,” said the open data and government advocate.

He also expressed concern about Rafizi’s proposal to “ignore” voters who have already made up their minds.

“For campaigning, that’s fine,” said Khairil. “But if applied to development policy, that’s bad.”

According to Khairil, the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) 2010 is meant to prevent the sharing of one’s personal data with the private sector without one’s consent.

“From what we know, political parties are doing surveys and hopefully not buying marketing data from private companies. If such a case does come to light, then it would be good case on how well PDPA as a measure to protect us,” he said.

He added that although the PDPA does not cover government agencies, most government agency websites follow similar privacy guidelines on using one’s personal data only for better service provision, but not to share it with third parties like the private sector or political parties.

“Legislation for government for this policy may be needed,” said Khairil, adding: “Additional measures could include new legislation against discrimination for example, that would prevent punitive policies from racial, religious or other forms of discriminatory profiling.”

Tricia Yeoh, chief operating officer for libertarian think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, said many companies have agreements that say personal data will not be sold to third parties.

“However, (and this should not be the ideal standard) if the government or political parties have obtained such data from these online companies through lawful means, then great care needs to be exercised,” Yeoh told Malay Mail Online, referring to data analytics companies that collect data on individuals’ preferences and predict voting patterns.

“For instance, there is a difference between responsible vs irresponsible use of data where on the one hand, it can be democratising and empowering (for instance, correctly identifying the needs of communities and meeting them), where on the other, it can alienate and damage trust of voters (for instance, messages that divide more than unite),” she said.

She also pointed out that political parties with more resources would have the unfair advantage of having greater access to data and therefore, more sophisticated targeting of the electorate than others.

“Finally, please also distinguish between Umno the political party and the government of Malaysia. If the government has ownership of personal data, it should not be transferring this data to any political party, Umno included. These are two separate entities,” said Yeoh.

Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism executive director Cynthia Gabriel said she was concerned that the lack of accountability in political parties’ use of personal data could lead to “indirect discrimination”.

“Info collected could disadvantage or discriminate certain groups based on biases and lack of data transparency,” Cynthia told Malay Mail Online.

She stressed that data should be kept anonymous without personally identifying people and that individuals should be informed if their personal data is being used.

“Processing of personal data must be pursuant to legal basis. This must be done with proper degree of transparency and provision of info, as well as strong ethical standards,” said the anti-corruption activist.

The Department of Personal Data Protection Malaysia said the PDPA regulated the processing of personal data in commercial transactions.

“The element of commercial transaction must be present. Therefore, processing of personal data for political campaigning purposes does not fall within the application of PDPA,” the department told Malay Mail Online in an email.

When asked how the PDPA could protect one’s personal data stored by government departments from being accessed by the ruling political party, the department only had this to say: “Under Section 3 of the PDPA 2010, the federal and state governments are exempted from the application of the Act.”

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