Political parties must account for source of voter data, says data protection commissioner
FF and SF activists posed as market researchers for polling, FG did ‘similar’
Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail have said party activists posed as markt researchers to conduct polling, Fine Gael says they did ‘similar’. File photograph: iStock
Political parties will have to reveal to the Data Protection Commissioner if they are processing personal data gathered during polling, where practices such as party activists posing as pollsters may have been used.
The DPC is already conducting a wide-ranging audit of parties’ treatment of personal data, with the watchdog indicating on Wednesday that each party should identify whether personal data was gathered during the polling and, if so, what was done with it.
It comes after Sinn Féin and Fianna Fail said party activists posed as market researchers to conduct polling, and Fine Gael said it had done something “similar”.
Sinn Féin’s actions were first revealed in an article in Wednesday’s Irish Independent, which detailed how party activists were issued with ID badges bearing the name of a non-existent market research company, Irish Market Research Agency.
Initially, the DPC said it would write to Sinn Féin, but later said: “As part of the DPC’s ongoing audit of political parties that commenced recently, all political parties have been asked to account for the source of each field of personal data they process concerning electors/voters.”
Sinn Féin activists posed as pollsters when engaging with voters in 2015. Fianna Fáil confirmed party members had also done so, prior to 2007, while Leo Varadkar said Fine Gael had engaged in “similar” practices before 2016.
Data protection experts said a key issue would be whether any personal data was gleaned from voters by either party, and if so, how it was used.
“If you didn’t keep personally identifiable information, and just kept statistical information, that doesn’t raise data protection questions,” said Simon McGarr, a solicitor and expert in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
However, if personal data had been collected, parties could still be exposed even if the activity had been discontinued prior to the introduction of the GDPR in 2018.
Fred Logue, also a solicitor and GDPR expert, said pre-existing data protection laws created similar obligations. “There isn’t really much of a difference between the main obligations under data protection law today and as it was three years ago,” he said.
If personal data was collected, and was still being used by any party, that could create further GDPR obligations, Mr McGarr said.
On Wednesday, Sinn Féin said: “No identifiable private information or data is ever used, collected or stored. It is entirely anonymous – that is the whole point of it.”
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael did not respond to detailed questions on Wednesday night.
Damian Loscher, managing director of Ipsos-MRBI – which conducts polling for The Irish Times – said the practice was “not right” and “trust is undermined by behaviours like this”.
Catherine Murphy, co-leader of the Social Democrats, accused Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil of not being transparent when originally questioned. She said there was a “latent culture” in some political parties “in which deception was not only tolerated, but encouraged”.
She said voters were “fed mistruths” and their information “gathered under false pretences”. The Social Democrats, the Green Party and Labour said on Wednesday they had not engaged in activities where individuals posed as researchers or pollsters.
In a statement on Wednesday evening, a spokeswoman for Fianna Fáil said the party has outsourced polling to private independent providers.
“Prior to 2007, we did on occasion use party members to undertake polling and on those occasions they did pose as market researchers. This was to supplement private providers also used. This practice was ended around 2007,” the spokeswoman said.
Earlier, Sinn Féin defended the polling carried out by party members purporting to be from a fake marketing company.
The party’s housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin said the localised polling was no different to research carried out by other political parties. Given the expense of polling it was a “key way to level the playing field”, he told RTÉ radio.
Mr Ó Broin said the polling data was always anonymised. He said the party members had badges with their real names and photos with the name of the market research company.
“This is a common part of election practices,” he said.
Mr Ó Broin told Pat Kenny on Newstalk that he did not accept it was unethical. “It’s a standard practice in political party activity. I am aware of many instances in my own constituency where larger parties have done exactly the same thing, this is standard practice, if people knew how much a professional opinion poll costs,” he said.
He said that when people were calling to doors conducting these polls for the party that was “exactly what they were doing – anonymised polls for the purpose of collecting polling data and that data was used exactly the same way as if you were paying a professional company or you’re doing it [in] some other manner – it’s exactly what it says on the tin”.
He said the polls were always done properly. “The accuracy of those polls was just as good as polls that you would pay thousands of euros for and we stand over that. The polls were done properly and ethically in my view,” he said.
He said professional pollsters do not identify who their client is.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said Fine Gael conducted “similar” polling to that done by Sinn Féin.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Drivetime programme on Wednesday evening, Mr Varadkar was asked if his party had engaged in any similar exercises.
“Quite frankly yes,” he told the programme. He said that prior to 2016, “we would have done something similar, either volunteers would have been asked to do surveys door-to-door, or students would have been paid to do it, and it would have been done on a similar basis, anonymised for the purposes of polling”
He said the practice was discontinued, perhaps as early as 2014, and had not been done in the last five to seven years. Earlier on Wednesday, when he was asked about the practice, Mr Varadkar had said it was not done during his period as leader of the party.
“But I can’t swear blind about local arrangements that may have been done in the past, but not during my period as leader, we’ve only ever used companies that have been above board.”
A spokesman for the Labour Party said it has not engaged in similar activity and “our head office wouldn’t sanction such an approach”.
A spokeswoman for the Social Democrats said it has “never engaged in posing as independent market researchers or opinion poll companies to survey voters”.
Through a spokeswoman, the Green Party said it “has never posed as a research company or organisation to conduct polling or to collect data on voters”.