South African political parties are accessing your personal information – and it could be a serious problem

The Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) applies to the processing of information, by automated and non-automated means.

This includes political parties, says Ahmore Burger-Smidt, head of the Data Privacy Practice Group at Werksmans Attorneys.

Burger-Smidt said that the planning, implementation and management of elections necessarily involves the processing of voters’ personal information and thus POPIA is automatically invoked.

“Data subjects receive not only calls and SMS messages but at times emails from various political organisations,” she said.

“The question then becomes, where did the political party get one’s personal information? Who gave the party permission to use a person’s personal information?

“When was consent received as envisaged by POPIA? More importantly, why is it that political organisations wish to know how and whether we wish to exercise the right to vote at all?”

Burger-Smidt said that at the heart of the debate is the fact that the voters roll is a public document in South Africa that can be accessed by any political affiliation and any person at the mere payment of a fee.

The voters roll contains important and private information such as:

  • A person’s name and surname;
  • Identity number;
  • Cell phone number;
  • Address;
  • Date of birth;
  • The voting district in which a person will cast their vote.

“The very inclusion of one’s identity number provides details of one’s date of birth, gender, age as well as whether a person is a South African citizen or a permanent resident,” said Burger-Smidt

“Also, one might very well object to one’s mobile number being available at the offices of the Electoral Commission.”

Need for a guideline

Burger-Smidt said that the information in the voters roll raises various questions when considering the right to privacy and POPIA in general.

She added that the South Africa information regulator, advocate Pansy Tlakula, recently reiterated the need to develop a guideline in respect of access to information and the protection of personal data in the election process.

“The issue of personal data and how it is used in the election process truly is a burning issue,” she said.

“From a POPIA perspective, the use of personal data when it comes to political campaigning is highly privacy invasive and indeed raises important data security questions.

“Furthermore, the use of personal data could very well undermine faith in the democratic process.

“There is a complex corporate ecosystem behind targeted political advertising. This isn’t just the likes of Facebook but also data analytics companies that should stand up and be part of this important conversation. Data analytics firms are employed by political parties contesting elections to inform the campaign direction of the part.”

Burger-Smidt said what drives this process is not always clear to a voter.

“What is however clear is that there are companies whose business model it is to analyse and in some instances exploit the data people share in the public domain in such a way that intimate personal details about a person’s beliefs, habits, and behaviour can be better understood and used for the purpose of allowing political parties to target these individuals with political messages.

“Access to personal information and the use thereof should be top of mind to every single voter, not only in South Africa but all over the world,” she said.

Read: Low voter turnout expected for the 2019 elections – this is how the ANC, DA and EFF could be affected

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South African political parties are accessing your personal information – and it could be a serious problem