National News

Australians 'naive' to online manipulation

Australians may be accustomed to living their lives online but experts say the Facebook data-mining scandal shows we need to be more cautious about targeted political content based on psychological profiling.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday apologised for a major breach of trust after claims political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed the data of 50 million users.

The data mining then helped build detailed profiles on American voters for Donald Trump's US presidential campaign in 2016 and Australia's cyber security chief says it's likely Australian users were also implicated.

Professor Moira Paterson from Monash University says despite a level of awareness about privacy settings, Australians can be "a little bit naive" when it comes to online content.

"Using different forms of social media has become a way of life, but I think people need to exercise some caution and be very aware," the privacy and surveillance researcher told AAP on Thursday.

"When you receive political messaging, or messaging that's relevant to some political issue close to an election, you may be receiving particular messages based on your profiling."

Prof Paterson likens the exercise to online retailers using data mining to target advertising to social media users.

However, she says applying the technique to influence voting crosses a line.

"It really starts to go the heart of our democratic processes," she says.

University of Sydney Associate Professor Timothy Dwyer also believes social media users should more actively question whether the content they see is attempting to manipulate their vote.

"One interpretation of these developments is that basically political content on social media is just another form of advertising in the sense that you might assume you're being manipulated by some political group," he told AAP.

"But it's also just a concern that personal information disclosed on social media platforms can make its way into places that people have no knowledge of, or of its subsequent uses."

Both the government and opposition have this week distanced themselves from Cambridge Analytical.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday said he "wasn't aware" of the company doing any work for the Liberal party and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has said Labor would have "nothing to do with the company or the practices".

Will Easton, the head of Facebook in Australia and New Zealand, hasn't been able to say whether Australians' data was involved in the data mining. He told Fairfax Media on Thursday the company was co-operating with the Australian government.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims has said the incident will be part of an upcoming inquiry.

Prof Paterson believes it's time legislators consider regulatory controls, including current exemptions for politicians from any requirements of the Privacy Act.

"I think it would be timely for that to come back on the agenda," she said.

© AAP 2018