The Herald Sun‘s James Campbell is the winner of today’s “If the story involves computers it must be hacking” award for disservice to your readers for yesterday’s story about the investigation into The Age‘s access of an ALP voter database. It’s a story that Campbell has been following since earlier this year and revolves around the ALP’s Eleczilla database, which contains personal details of people on the electoral roll, along with other information gleaned from correspondence between voters and MPs.
The ALP contends that the access was unauthorised, which is why a police investigation was prompted by the Electoral Commission, but how you may ask did The Age breach the security on this database, which contained so much private information about people? Well according to Campbell’s first story in April, Age editor-in-chief Paul Ramadge claims:
The Age was provided with access to a database by people involved in the ALP’s election campaign.
“They had come to us saying the database raised questions about how the party was gaining access to people’s private information.”
So someone handed them a username and a password, they used it, and Campbell declares it hacking?
A cynic might think that the Hun is after a bit of payback with the “Hacking” label after The Age ran hard on News Ltd in the wake of the News of the World voicemail intercepts, or ask why the Hun is upset with The Age revealing just how much personal data the ALP is recording about voters? But of interest to nerds everywhere is when will journos stop using the term hacking for every computer related story that they write?
This story doesn’t meet the traditional definition of hacking as working on or improving something, and it doesn’t even fit the more popularly understood meaning of breaking into a computer by exploiting it somehow. Perhaps the most worrying part of the story, and something that neither The Age or Herald Sun paid any attention to at all was this comment from The Hun’s unknown source:
A source said the party was puzzled why the database had been accessed from Fairfax’s offices and not an internet cafe, where “we would never have known about it”.
This seems to imply that there’s nothing standing between this enormous record of people’s personal details and the rest of the internet beyond the need for a username and a password plugged into a web browser. The fact that access to this data could be made available from a public internet connected computer is astonishing.
As an aside, Campbell points out that the ALP is “legally” allowed to collect this data on voters, and it’s well known that the Liberal party has a voter tracking system of its own, but that’s not surprising when it’s the two major parties who have traditionally been able to decide what limits they do, or do not, place on their own activities. This is not unlike the exemptions that political parties have made for themselves in the “Do Not Call” telemarketing rules, so the question raised isn’t one of legality, but one of ethics. Who within the ALP has access to this data, and what controls are in place to stop its misuse?
While the Herald Sun is happily taking aim at their rival across the river, are they selling out their readers and their own “Right to know” campaign? Let’s get some perspective, The Age was keeping tabs on the actions of the powerful, isn’t that what our news media claims as the reason that they are needed and indeed should be afforded special treatment? Could this end up being an own goal from The Hun?