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Austria’s post rejects criticism over data sharing

Staff Writer | January 9, 2019
Austria’s national post office defended its policy of collecting and selling information about customers’ assumed political allegiances.
Austria post
Europe   The group sold the names, addresses, age and gender
The Austrian Post said in a statement that the gathering of marketing data was “not a new business area” for the group and had been “well-established practice for many years”.

The company, which is publicly listed but still majority-owned by the government, has come under fire for compiling a database of the likely political allegiances of around 2.2 million Austrians — a quarter of the population — and selling that information on to political parties.

According to the investigative journalism website Addendum, the group sold the names, addresses, age and gender of around three million customers to other companies.

And it also made assumptions about users’ likely political allegiances and sold that data to political parties so that they can better target potential supporters in election campaigns, Addendum reported.

The website drew comparisons to the series of scandals concerning data protection and privacy that have engulfed Facebook, the world’s largest social network, in a number of countries after user data were hijacked in the 2016 US election campaign.

The Austrian Post insisted it had done nothing wrong as it was allowed to gather and use such data under Austrian law.

“We calculate data, such as affinity to a political party, in the same way that exit polls are calculated when voting closes on election day,“ it said.

“But these are statistical data from which it impossible to extrapolate the behaviour of individual people,“ it argued.

The Austrian Post’s assumptions about its customers’ political allegiances were based on opinion polls and voting statistics in specific geographical areas, the group explained.

“The calculation of such data is intended solely to reduce mailings wastage. Its sole purpose is to increase the likelihood that people will receive the mailings of those political parties most likely to interest them.”

And it insisted that the data were collected “exclusively for marketing purposes. The use of such data is strictly limited to this purpose only.”

Nevertheless, the privacy campaign group, Epicenter Works, argues that such a practice runs contrary to EU data protection rules.

It was a “scandal” that the Austrian Post was collecting and selling assumptions about customers’ party political allegiances without their knowledge and permission, said Wolfie Christl, a campaigner at Epicenter Works.

The consumer protection group VKI was also sceptical about the legality of the practice.

In the wake of the controversy, the Austrian Data Protection Authority announced Tuesday that it would look into the affair.

The Austrian Post would have two or three weeks to respond to the allegations, the head of the authority, Andrea Jelinek, said on Oe1 public radio.