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'Groom-a-Tory' iPhone app sparks privacy paranoia

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Mobile developers have expressed privacy fears over a Conservative general election-related iPhone application.

The app, launched in February, allows iPhone owners to keep tabs on the Tory election campaign, donate money and review policy areas. It also gives the "ability to telephone canvass friends and report their voting intentions back to the Conservative Party". The Call a Friend feature allows users to canvass their contacts and reports back the names, addresses and voting intentions of called parties via email to the Tories who will "use the data to help local campaigning".

Dave Addey, managing director of iPhone developer Agant, published a detailed analysis last week after the general election was announced questioning whether this functionality might violate the UK's Data Protection Act.

Addey, who is not affiliated to any party, raises a number of concerns about whether the called party gives their consent to have their data stored or processed by the Tories. He's also uneasy about the lack of information about how data collected via the app will be used and the lack of any privacy notice.

After Addey's post the Tories updated the App Store description to give guidance to users on how it ought to be used in canvassing. The Tories also promised not to use data gleaned from the app for spamming:

When using the “Call A Friend” feature, please confirm that you have the consent of the friend or relative whose details you are passing on to us. The Conservative Party will inform your friend or relative how it obtained his or her details. Information obtained by the Conservative Party from this App will not be used for electronic mailing purposes.

Addey note this is an improvement but fails to explain how the data obtained through the app might be used. The Tories are yet to response to our repeated attempts via both email and phone to get an answer to this question.

A spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner's Office explained that passing on other people's details to third parties is not necessarily a bad thing, and is allowed in the case of catalogue referrals, for example.

Political affiliation is deemed a sensitive subject and she explained to us that as a general principle there would be an onus of the user to explain to the contact what was going on. The ICO was unable to comment on the matter in any detail though without knowing how the Tories are using the data they obtain.

Knowledgeable political blogger Dizzy Thinks compared how the app works to doorstep canvassing. Both processes involve recording addresses and voting intentions. Whether this is done by either paper or electronic means the DPA still applies.

Dizzy added, as a side note, that New Labour uses a list of people who have expressed a willingness to receive phone calls from party activists, a restriction absent from the Tory app. ®

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