Saturday, 3 September 2016

Questionnaires' Disease

Inept or Machiavellian?

Yesterday was the launch of the Nationalist government’s grand push for Scottish independence.

The means?

Getting Scottish citizens to complete a survey giving their views on a range of social and political issues of which the key one is their attitude towards Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, has said that there would need to be a significant majority in favour of independence  before she launched another referendum, so she is just testing the water.

So far, so humdrum. Political parties organise surveys all the time to track developments in people’s views and potential voting preferences. Sometimes they get it right. More recently they have been more likely to get it wrong, sometimes with spectacular consequences.

Usually surveys of voting preferences are carried out by professional research agencies which come up with figures such as X% indicated that they would vote Tory, Y% indicated that they would vote Labour, and so on, bland stuff. The data is anonymised and the raw entries kept well away from the political or other parties which commissioned the work.

Not so this time.

The survey is being carried out by the Scottish National Party itself using both online and face-to-face methods. I do not know much about the face-to-face polling but presumably it follows a pretty standard approach: a series of questions which people are at liberty to answer or not. I do not know how data entry takes place and what additional information it includes.

The online survey is, however, raising a few eyebrows and stimulating a few journalists. In order to fill in the survey, you must provide name, address and so on, presumably to demonstrate that you are a bona fide person and to prevent you filling in the survey more than once. However, this isn’t the way online surveys are normally carried out. Probably you, like me, have filled in questionnaires managed by Survey Monkey, for example. The organisation goes to some length to ensure that you understand that your responses are confidential. Usually the approach involves the circulation of a link or a password which takes you through to the relevant website.

The Nationalist approach, however, is to collect personal data alongside political views. In this way, the party can track down the voting preference of every adult in Scotland who takes part. There is no way you can avoid giving your name and contact details as you are not allowed into the site without them. The stated intention is to give this information to SNP activists so that that they can phone you up, send you emails or, worst of all, knock on your door to put pressure on you to change your mind. The main targets for this intrusive monitoring of views and intentions are the ‘soft Nos’, those who voted against independence last time but might change their views this time.

There is no indication on the site, as far as I understand, that your data will be kept secret or your privacy protected. There is no commitment to destroying it either.

So, the words ‘rock’ and ‘hard place’ come to mind. Either you don’t give your view at all and the Nationalists claim a high percentage in favour, or you do give your view and they send the heavies round.

Now, it is quite common for political parties to keep data gathered through door-to-door canvassing. However, if someone knocks on your door, you are at liberty not to open it or not to answer questions. No one can force you to give your name.

However, if you want to register your views about the independence referendum, there is no escape. Your identity will be known. You will be tracked down.

Why not just not do the survey then?

Because that refusal to act in itself provides the Ruling Party with similar information, though obviously not quite so detailed. Convinced Nationalists will rush to fill in the online survey. Those who don’t will either have no access to computers or, more likely, be opposed to a second referendum. No doubt both these `groups will await the knock on the door. The Nationalist government will know who you are as they will simply check the electoral register to see if a survey has been completed by someone with that name living at that address.

These are the kinds of tactics used by authoritarian regimes the world over. Can you imagine what it will be like for voters who have fled such regimes to discover that the country they once considered safe is now collecting data about them and distributing it to political activists?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that Nicola Sturgeon is another Vladimir Putin, despite the admiration for the Russian leader expressed by her predecessor. Indeed, this ‘National Survey’ bears all the hallmarks of some teenage activist’s clumsy and ill-thought-through bright idea. But authoritarianism proceeds by baby steps.

I do not want to give my private data to a political party whose ideas I reject. I do not want to give my private data to a Ruling Party whom I do not trust to use it ethically. Above all, I do not want to give my private data to a Nationalist Party with whose values and principles I profoundly disagree.

I certainly do not want to stand by while our civil liberties are eroded in this manner.

One test question for you to answer if you are a Nationalist. Would you answer a survey like this if it were presented by the Tory Party?

Ineptitude of Machiavellianism? I am really not so sure.

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