Political parties are using e-mail addresses they have collected to find voters on Facebook and show them targeted advertising, an activity privacy experts say deserves far more scrutiny and oversight.
Many voters may be unaware their information is being used this way. The activity raises questions about the use of personal information by political parties, which are widely viewed as exempt from certain privacy laws.
Facebook, however, is not exempt.
Parties collect e-mail addresses through a combination of door-knocking, petitions and other means. Canada’s major federal parties have all uploaded lists of e-mails to Facebook’s advertising system, which matches them up to individual users’ profiles on the social platform.
Once matched, those users receive ads directly in their news feeds by that political party, creating what Facebook calls a “custom audience.”
The ads were identified using the Facebook Political Ad Collector, a global advertisement-monitoring project run by The Globe and Mail. The project asks readers to install a browser extension on their computer, which will log Facebook’s political ads and targeting information and send them to media partners around the world for analysis.
Using custom audience groups, parties are able to target ads to specific voters. For example, an NDP ad regarding cellphone bills that used custom-audience targeting and ran between Aug. 28 and Sept. 4 was seen by Facebook users up to 50,000 times, according to Facebook’s Ad Library.
On its website, Facebook says that it encrypts the e-mail addresses when they are uploaded and deletes the list after the matching is done.
The federal Liberals, Conservatives and NDP have all used custom-audience targeting for their ads, according to The Globe’s analysis.
This practice is common in digital marketing. However, federal political parties are currently considered exempt from federal privacy laws, including the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. The Globe reported Thursday that a coordinated legal campaign backed by Canadian entrepreneur Jim Balsillie is under way to challenge that view.
Because Facebook doesn’t have the same exemption, it’s a legal grey area, according to Teresa Scassa, law professor at the University of Ottawa and Canada Research Chair in information law and policy.
“My view is that [parties] should be subject to data protection laws, they should be subject to PIPEDA,” she said. “And, if they’re not, then they are playing fast and loose with the personal information that they have.”
Even if people sign a petition or otherwise give their e-mail address to a political party, Ms. Scassa said, they still have a right to control their personal information. “I have a hard time seeing anything but the most basic uses of voter information being legitimate if they’re not subject to rules of oversight and accountability,” she said.
Facebook spokesperson Erin Taylor provided a brief comment when asked about the issue. “We require advertisers to comply with applicable laws,” she said.
The Globe also reached out to the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP for comment. Both the Conservatives and the NDP confirmed they use lists to advertise on Facebook.
Elizabeth Dubois, a professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in political communications, said targeted ads may help voters make informed decisions on issues they care about.
However, most voters are likely unaware that the personal information they’ve given to a party could be uploaded to Facebook, she said.
Ms. Dubois said parties should be explicit when collecting e-mail addresses that could be uploaded to Facebook for targeting purposes, make sure individuals consent to this kind of use, and allow them to opt out.
Elections Canada and the federal Privacy Commissioner urged political parties this year to make specific commitments, such as informing individuals if their information will be uploaded to social-media platforms and giving Canadians access to their information upon request.
Liberal MP Frank Baylis, who was part of a parliamentary committee that studied how parties gather and use personal information, said the next government should rewrite privacy laws so that they clearly apply to political parties.
“It’s a ridiculous exemption that makes no sense,” said Mr. Baylis, who is not running for re-election. “We need to strengthen our privacy laws up and down and apply them to everybody.”