McDonald faces questions over SF’s Facebook practices and voter database

Party has so far declined to reveal details of its Abú canvassing system

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has been called  to answer questions about the potential targeting of voters on Facebook and the online database maintained by the party. Photograph:  Gareth Chaney/Collins

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has been called to answer questions about the potential targeting of voters on Facebook and the online database maintained by the party. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has been called on by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Ministers to answer questions about the potential targeting of voters on Facebook and the online database maintained by the party.

So far, Sinn Féin has declined to reveal where its Abú canvassing system is hosted on computer services in the European Union, who has access to the data, and what security procedures are in place.

It has also not answered questions about a document in which party officials were told to use personal information posted on social media by members of the public to canvass a voters’ home address.

The party has said that “all data is stored on servers based in the EU and handled in accordance with GDPR”. The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has sought answers to questions it has posed to Sinn Féin.

Calling for answers from the Sinn Féin leader, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said: “Social media is an important platform for public discourse and for debate and for politicians engaging.

“It is deeply concerning that anyone would breach the trust of our citizens – including potentially young voters by allegedly using such information in a way it was never intended for.

‘Absolute nonsense’

“It is time for the Sinn Féin Leader to answer questions on this and to prove the clarity and information that has not been forthcoming since this issue first emerged,” Mr Harris told The Irish Times.

Joining the call, Fianna Fáil’s Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath said: “If the shoe was on the other foot and these questions were being raised by the State’s watchdog in relation to Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael or any other party, Sinn Féin would be shouting from high heaven.”

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that she would expect that “Sinn Féin would respond in a quick and an efficient way to all of the questions that are asked of them”.

Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty said on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Show yesterday that it is “absolute nonsense” to say that the party was scanning people’s comments on Facebook and he said there is “no data harvesting” in relation to that.

However, in an internal document, members were told that “Facebook is king” and that they should elicit more information from users so they can “tag them as social media engaged and follow up with a canvass on their doorstep”.

Anyone with access to the system can record whether there is “hard support” from a person, “soft support”, “strong opposition”, whether it is “unknown” or whether they were not in during a canvass.

Data experts have also generally queried whether holding information on a database about voters’ intentions is within the bounds of GDPR laws which generally prohibits this except for a small number of exemptions.

A spokesman for Fine Gael said that the party does not have any such database. A spokeswoman for Fianna Fáil said that “the party does not maintain an electronic national database of voters and local public representatives do not share their canvassing information with the party nationally”.

Electoral register

“The party works at all times to ensure it is fully compliant with the GDPR/data protection obligations and it takes those obligations very seriously.”

Sinn Féin has said that its database of voters is merely the electoral register.

The Department of Housing said each of the 31 local authorities prepares its own electoral register, and there is no central register. A copy of the register is supplied free to each TD in that constituency.

There is both a full and an edited register. The edited register contains only the names of people who have no objection to their details being used for purposes other than an electoral or other statutory purpose.

There is also a marked register which is used in polling stations and shows whether a person has received a ballot paper. The clerk of the Dáil can supply copies of or extracts of the marked register for a fee.