Sinn Féin TD says party presentation on social media use was ‘stupidly worded’
FG Senator calls for German data commissioner to investigate Frankfurt-based system
Sinn Féin housing spokesman, Eoin O Broin, sais slide in the training material suggesting people can be tagged as a “social media engager” was not correct. Photograph:Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos
A senior Sinn Féin TD has said a leaked party presentation its use of social media is “stupidly worded”, arguing its digital campaigning platform Abu cannot be used in the manner described on the slide.
The party’s housing spokesman, Eoin O Broin, told The Irish Times that a slide in the training material suggesting people can be tagged as a “social media engager” was not correct.
Sinn Féin has come under political pressure to explain how its database works, and whether data from social media platforms is imported to it and further analysed or combined with other identifying information.
The slide, which was first published by the Irish Independent, describes how social media is “key to enhancing our real world interaction”. It advises that Facebook will show the name of a person to a canvasser and “roughly where they live”.
“By engaging with them you may be able to elicit more specific information that will help you pinpoint them in the real-world,” the slide says.
It continues: “You can use the search function in the Abu system to find the person you have engaged with online, tag them as a social media engager and follow up with a canvass on their doorstep”.
However, Mr O Broin said this was “stupidly worded”. He said no facility existed within the Sinn Féin system to upload the information in the manner described by the slide. He also said no data-matching took place, and was not possible in the system.
Elsewhere, a European Commission spokeswoman said it expects organisations that process personal data in the EU to comply with data protection rules. She said the Commission is working on a proposal on digital advertising, but that supervising and enforcing rules is the responsibility of national data protection authorities.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said on Thursday’s RTÉ’s Prime Time that the database was stored in Frankfurt by “an outstanding and trusted company” called Linode.
The Data Protection Commissioner is engaging with Sinn Féin on the matter. Asked if it had any wider concerns about parties’ compliance with data protection obligations within the wider political system, and if any actions were under consideration to examine that, a spokesman said: “We have no imminent plans to conduct audits of political parties”.
It comes amid calls for Sinn Féin to “decommission” its voter database as the only way to end the ongoing controversy about the information the party collects and stores on the Irish electorate.
Fine Gael Senator John Cummins also said he hoped the German data protection commissioner would make inquiries about the party’s Abú (which translates from Irish as forever) system which was stored in London but has since been moved to Frankfurt, Germany following Brexit.
Mr Cummins hit out at Sinn Féin’s claim the party used the system the same way as every other party and said there is not one single central electoral register but 31 separate registers, one for each local authority.
The Waterford Senator also suggested the party wanted to keep the Abú system “at arms’ length” from the Data Protection Commissioner because “the secret data base is in fact a well-financed Sinn Féin asset and wasn’t declared by the party in their Sipo (Standards in Public Office Commission) returns”.
“This just seems to me like Cambridge Analytica meets Ardoyne via Serbia, Frankfurt, Manhattan and London. I suspect even Edward Snowden would find it difficult to get to the bottom of this sophisticated cyber operation,” he said.
Mr Cummins was speaking in the Seanad on Friday in the wake of the ongoing controversy about the online database containing the details of up to 3.5 million of the electorate, and reports that Sinn Féin members are encouraged to add information on voters including their perceived level of support for the party.
The UK’s data protection watchdog has also confirmed that it will be making enquiries about the database.
Ms McDonald said on Thursday when the database was set up, the party had a data compliance officer but not a data protection officer. It has since employed one.
She stressed that the system “isn’t something that is unique to us. Every political party, every candidate who runs an election canvasses the vote, has access to the electoral register and it’s part and parcel of the process,” she said, adding that “it is the returns, if you like, from canvasses”.
But in the Seanad, Mr Cummins said “that argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because everyone in this House knows that there is no centralised elector register in this country.
“There are 31 individual registers across 31 individual local authorities. It seems the Oireachtas database is good enough for every other political party in this country but it’s not good enough for Sinn Féin.”
He said there was “something really dodgy about all of this. It seems that Sinn Féin is operating a transnational cyberweb of data bases with unknown individuals being trained to elicit information from people on social media that they can combine with their voter data base system and to borrow a phrase from their training manual ‘pinpoint them in the real world’.
Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Mark Daly intervened to urge caution on the issue of privilege. Mr Cummins said he always exercised caution.
Sinn Féin Senator Fintan Warfield asked if the issue was relevant to the order of business. He suggested there were reasons the database was not registered in Dublin.
“Is it because Sinn Féin want to keep it at arms’ length from the Data Protection Commissioner?” asked Mr Cummins. “It is because the secret data base is in fact a well-financed Sinn Féin asset and wasn’t declared by the party in their Sipo returns, he said.”
He concluded that “the only way this controversy can be brought to an end is for Sinn Féin to decommission this database” and suggested a “very serious debate” was needed on electoral reform.
Seanad deputy leader and Fine Gael Senator Sean Kyne also said there were issues around the electoral register and whether Sinn Féin was circumventing Sipo rules. He also queried whether Sinn Féin asked voters if they could store personal information, a requirement since the implementation of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).