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All of Canada's federal political parties collecting ‘vast amount’ of personal information


Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien takes part in a news conference in Ottawa, in April. He has concerns about the amount of private information political parties are collecting and the absence of independent oversight.
Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien takes part in a news conference in Ottawa, in April. He has concerns about the amount of private information political parties are collecting and the absence of independent oversight.

In the span of 24 hours the Conservative Party of Canada had sent a text message to Krissy Larkin-Nickerson’s 14-year-old daughter and cold-called her husband looking for a $1,600 donation.

The Barrington resident remains unsettled by the intrusions. She recalls last week her husband being pressured to provide his credit card information over the phone. He did not. But Larkin-Nickerson has other lingering concerns. How did the party retrieve her family’s phone numbers and why was her daughter — a minor — solicited for support when she’s not eligible to vote in the fall federal election?

“In reality, who else has access to these numbers?” the mother said.

She’s just one of the Nova Scotians targeted by the Conservatives’ controversial national canvassing campaign. And she’s not alone in raising privacy concerns about these random communications from a political party aiming to be elected the next government of Canada.

Unlike federal government institutions, Canadian political parties are not subject to either the Privacy Act or the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, which generally applies to organizations involved in commercial activity.

B.C. is the only province that regulates the privacy practices of political parties. The province’s Personal Information Protection Act requires political parties to only collect, use, or disclose information about an individual if the individual has given consent. An investigation report released by the B.C. privacy commissioner in February shows just how much private information political parties are collecting on the 3.3 million registered voters in that province. The report zeroed in on the province’s NDP, Green and Liberal parties showing they gathered 58 different kinds of personal information.

They include surname, given name(s), date of birth, home address, mailing address, email address, phone number, sex, ethnicity, age, languages spoken, religion, income, education, familial relations, family or marital status, profession, workplace, job title, professional status, number of years at residential address, and neighbourhood demographics.

Mining parties

The federal Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and Greens all mine social media accounts for information they find invaluable. - 123RF
The federal Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and Greens all mine social media accounts for information they find invaluable. - 123RF

All three parties mine people’s social media accounts, collecting wide ranging private information. According to the 45-page document, the Green Party gathers usernames, email addresses, location, Twitter biographies, and profile pictures. The party also tracks whether someone has liked, shared, or commented on any of the party’s social media posts. The Liberals and NDP also collect from social media sites but were not forthcoming in the types of information they collected. The NDP collected personal information of 40,000 people from Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

Matt Saunders, a Halifax privacy lawyer, says people should not underestimate the “vast amount” of private information political parties are collecting that ultimately are used to develop detailed voter profiles. For starters, Elections Canada provides political parties with a complete voters list with millions of names and addresses. Parties supplement that through traditional information gathering tools, such as door-to-door canvassing, and more modern techniques, like scouring social media.

“You have to factor in all those data points and the ways in which they can be collected and effectively amalgamated and used for a different purpose than the original consent was given, if consent was ever given,” said Saunders.

“I’m very concerned about what if any security protocols the databases that our federal political parties have in place with what I would say is a treasure trove of potentially sensitive personal information.”

A slew of Nova Scotians are being targeted by the Conservative party’s pre-election texting campaign. - Herald
A slew of Nova Scotians are being targeted by the Conservative party’s pre-election texting campaign. - Herald

This brings us back to the Conservatives current random canvassing campaign. Saunders suggests that the party might be misusing people’s private information by sending out mass, unsolicited texts that don’t include important information like the sender’s full name, where the recipient’s phone number was gathered and whether the text itself follows privacy standards.

“That’s the more concerning issue that I have with the data collection: the potential for misuse. The federal Conservative party has suggested that this is an innovative way of engaging the voter. I would argue that telemarketers and robocalls were once considered innovative. Now they’re considered an annoyance at best and in some jurisdictions illegal. But the larger concern is what those databases could be used for.”

Good start, lacking oversight

“Independent oversight is necessary to ensure that privacy policies or principles are not just empty promises but actual safeguards applied in practice”

            - Federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien

The new Elections Modernization Act that came into force this June requires federal political parties to publish a privacy policy on their website. The document must explain how they will protect personal information. Saunders calls the new legislation a good start but he said it lacks teeth because there’s no oversight to ensure parties are abiding by their policies.

“This is an opportunity now for our political parties to take a good hard look at what they stand for and really face up to the possibility of really alienating the voter base by engaging in these impersonal and arguably inappropriate methods of using their personal information databases simply to solicit donations or get more information from an individual.”

Daniel Therrien, federal privacy commissioner, also has concerns about the amount of private information political parties are collecting and the absence of independent oversight.

Last June, Therrien outlined his concerns to the House of Commons standing committee on procedure and house affairs, saying that in most regions of the world, laws provide that political parties are governed by privacy laws.

“This includes jurisdictions such as EU, UK, New Zealand, Argentina and Hong Kong for example,” he said. “Canada is becoming the exception.”

He suggested the Elections Modernization Act include seeking consent from individuals, limiting the collection of personal information to what is required, limiting disclosure of information to others, providing individuals access to their personal information and being subject to independent privacy oversight.

“Independent oversight is necessary to ensure that privacy policies or principles are not just empty promises but actual safeguards applied in practice,” he stated in his presentation.”

Those measures were not included in the Act.

'(L)icence to behave in the questionable ways'

Canada's federal political parties parties treat peoples’ private information like gold and are reluctant to part with it. - Reuters

Paul Black, a former policy adviser to Nova Scotia’s first and only NDP government, understands why parties treat peoples’ private information like gold and are reluctant to part with it.

“If you put yourself in the shoes of a political party organization, your job as that organization is to maximize your capacity and put yourself into a position to win an election,” said Black. “You’re going to use every means to do that.”

“The mindset of political parties is: ‘Why should federal privacy laws apply to us? We’re just trying to get the big bad corporations who are out there trying to steal people’s information and commoditizing it.’”

He says change might eventually come if an individual, perhaps a privacy lawyer, or non-governmental organization takes the government to court and forces political parties to adhere to substantial privacy laws. He figures the public at large likely won’t force government’s hand.

“Is there a likelihood of a broad swath of the public getting angry and forcing the government of the day to act? I would put that at a medium to low chance. People are literally concerned with getting their kids to school on time and getting to work on time. That sometimes gives politicians licence to behave in the questionable ways they sometimes do.”

The Elections Modernization Act falls under the federal Democratic Institutions department. Minister Karina Gould could not be reached for comment but Gould’s spokeswoman Amy Butcher defended the Elections Modernization Act saying it represents “the first time the federal government has included political parties in any kind of privacy regime.

“We will continue to work with Parliament to strengthen the protection of Canadians’ privacy and the integrity of our democratic institutions,” she said.

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