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Politics Majority of poll respondents express support for extending privacy laws to political parties

Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, seen in Ottawa on April 25, 2019, and Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perreault have urged Canada's political parties to set a high bar for themselves when drafting their respective privacy policies ahead of an early-July deadline.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Canadians have strong concerns about how political parties use their personal information, but a new survey of Canadian voters found the vast majority of respondents are unaware that parties are exempt from federal privacy laws.

Only 9 per cent of survey respondents said they knew parties are exempt from Canadian privacy laws, while 85 per cent said they didn’t know and 7 per cent were unsure. Upon learning this, most said they either strongly agree (65 per cent) or somewhat agree (23 per cent) that political parties should be subject to the same privacy laws as other organizations in Canada.

The survey on privacy was conducted by Campaign Research Inc. and was commissioned by the Centre for Digital Rights, a not-for-profit organization founded by Jim Balsillie, the former co-chief executive of Research in Motion (now BlackBerry).

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Political parties are preparing to reveal new privacy policies ahead of a July 1 deadline. Federal election law reforms passed by Parliament in December require parties to have a privacy policy in place by then, but the legislation was silent on what the policies must contain.

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Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien and Chief Electoral Officer Stéphane Perreault have urged parties to set a high bar with their policies and released suggestions as to what a strong policy should contain.

Canadian MPs recently played host to an international forum that highlighted how political parties around the world are working with social-media companies to gather personal information and target voters. The forum’s three days of hearings were a response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a Britain-based consulting company with links to Canada used improperly obtained data on millions of Facebook users to target political messages.

The poll of 1,471 eligible Canadian voters was conducted between April 30 and May 1, 2019. Because it is an online survey, a margin of error cannot be assigned.

In a public guidance document released in April, Elections Canada and the Privacy Commissioner’s Office said parties should obtain meaningful consent for the collection and use of personal information. It added that parties should not assume Canadians are consenting to have their information included in a party database simply because they may like a party’s post on social media.

While not responding to this specific poll, Mr. Perreault, the Chief Electoral Officer, recently told The Globe and Mail in an interview that other polling has shown clear public support for tighter oversight in this area.

“You can see quite clearly that there’s a strong desire of Canadians to see some rules there,” he said. “I think that is something that we’ll have to continue to look into after this next election. I don’t see this as a topic that is going away."

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Mr. Perreault will be meeting with all parties on June 13 to remind them of their obligations under the new election-law provisions that will soon take effect.

During an appearance at the international hearings in Ottawa late last month, Mr. Balsillie said the use of personal data by political parties should be regulated by government. Specifically, he expressed concern with the way personal information gathered by social-media companies can be shared with political parties.

“I think there needs to be complete transparency of all activities between political parties and these platforms,” he said. “I think political parties should be under privacy legislation.”

The hearings were staged by the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, which had previously conducted a detailed study of the Cambridge Analytica issue. The committee has issued an all-party report calling on the government to extend privacy laws to political parties.

The Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains responded to the report in writing in April

“The committee’s recommendations will inform the government as it continues to reflect on the extension of Canada’s privacy protection frameworks to political parties,” the ministers wrote.

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