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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Just what are they doing with our voter information?

No privacy legislation currently exists to protect private information gathered on Canadian voters. —
No privacy legislation currently exists to protect information gathered by political parties on Canadian voters. — 123RF Stock Photo

Three of Canada’s political parties are being investigated by the federal Competition Bureau.

It sounds like a long shot — but in some ways, it makes a lot of sense.

It’s all about your privacy.

While the federal government has passed legislation about how companies can collect, store and use any personal information they collect about you, the legislation specifically exempts pollical parties from the same requirements. So, it’s do as I say, not as I do.

A group called the Centre for Digital Rights has asked the Competition Bureau to investigate the three parties for misleading voters about how information that’s collected on voters is being used.

The centre is doing a bit of carpet bombing; it hasn’t just complained about the federal parties’ behaviour to the Competition Bureau, but to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the Commissioner of Canada Elections, the federal Privacy Commissioner and the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia as well. It’s the legal equivalent of firing a shotgun and hoping a pellet hits home somewhere.

“In contrast to their respective privacy policies, each of the (federal political parties) engage in the collection of personal information of Canadian voters from a variety of sources including publicly posted data — such as online blogs — and social media data as well as publicly available socio-economic data,” the centre’s complaint says. “This includes the creation of voter profiles for the purpose of deceptively delivering targeted advertising designed to influence the voting behaviour of the Canadian public.”

More power to them: anything that forces the political parties to regulate their use of private information is welcome.

I’d like to see the complaint turn on the second part of the centre’s concerns, though. The parties may well be deceptive in their explanation of what they do with the collected information, but more important is what that information lets them do.

The information contained in voter dossiers is the mechanism that lets individual specifically crafted misleading messages do their work.

Having a range of information about someone lets you target individuals with particularly crafted information that might not be outright false, but can be self-serving or misleading. Of course, as past elections in other countries have shown us, the information offered up can also be outright false — and machined to fit as neatly into an individual’s personal convictions as a key into a lock.

Two words: Cambridge Analytica.

Canada’s federal parties have tacitly confirmed that collection and storing information about individuals is an abuse of power.

The simple fact is that people like and approve of information that supports or reinforces the biases they already have; they accept it instantaneously.

I see it regularly. I occasionally get emails from people telling me that a column I wrote was particularly good. It becomes clear further on in the email that what they liked best about the column was not its style or the information it conveyed, but the fact that they already agreed with the position I had taken.

The bottom line is that Canada’s federal parties are absolutely aware that they are using improper methods to collect and use personal information on voters.

Think about it: by enacting much more restrictive privacy legislation on others, Canada’s federal parties have tacitly confirmed that collection and storing information about individuals is an abuse of power.

So, how can they then suggest that the exact same abuse of power is reasonable, as long as they are the ones abusing it?

Canada’s political parties should have to explain how they use private information and be bound by the same laws as everyone else — including the requirement that they should have to disclose, on request, anything they store about an individual.

Knowledge is power — and power can corrupt.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire publications across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky


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