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Politics Political parties should be subject to privacy laws, reports committee investigating Facebook data use

The committee investigating the misuse of Facebook data is expressing “grave concern” that Canadian elections are vulnerable to exploitation and is calling on Ottawa to strengthen federal privacy laws.

Specifically, the all-party committee says Ottawa should subject political parties to privacy laws and give the Privacy Commissioner new powers to seize documents and impose hefty fines. It also says Facebook, Google and other large online firms should have to disclose who pays for political ads and who is being targeted.

In report released Tuesday, the House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy and ethics said the changes should be in line with tough new measures that took effect last month in the European Union. Those rules give individuals rights over how their personal data is used and sets heavy fines for companies that violate the new policies.

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“The urgency of the matter cannot be overstated,” the committee report states.

Since March, the committee has been looking into the international scandal related to Cambridge Analytica and the misuse of Facebook data that was improperly obtained from 87 million Facebook users, including more than 600,000 Canadians.

Canadian data specialist Christopher Wylie, a former Cambridge Analytica employee, emerged as a key whistleblower. He revealed details of how the British consulting firm and its parent company SCL Group used the Facebook data to target voters in political campaigns.

“The scandal has brought to light issues relating to mass data harvesting, the use of data for nefarious purposes, and the threats and challenges these questionable methods can create for democracies around the world,” the committee report states. “The evidence that the committee has heard so far gives rise to grave concerns that the Canadian democratic process is similarly vulnerable to improper acquisition and manipulation of personal data.”

The committee took a close look at the connections between SCL Group and Aggregate IQ (AIQ), a small Canadian firm based in Victoria. The company has been referenced in SCL documents as “SCL Canada”, but AIQ officials told MPs that it is an entirely separate company. Company officials also insisted that they have not broken any laws and do not engage in the “so-called digital dark arts.”

The committee concluded that AIQ’s testimony was “inconsistent” and “full of contradictions.”

The CEO of AIQ, Zachary Massingham, testified before the committee in April alongside his chief operating officer, Jeff Silvester, who answered most of the questions from MPs. Mr. Massingham did not comply with a committee summons to reappear in June; he sent MPs a doctor’s note instead.

A dissenting report written by the committee’s Conservative and NDP members reveals a disagreement took place over how the committee should respond.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said the committee’s failure to immediately raise the issue with the Speaker of the House of Commons creates a precedent that could weaken the power of committees.

Mr. Angus also said that the committee recommendations should be addressed before the 2019 federal election, but he doubts the Liberal government will act.

“I do not think this government takes this issue seriously. I think they’re extremely close with the big American tech giants,” he said, noting that the government’s electoral reform bill failed to extend privacy laws to political parties.

Liberal MP and committee vice-chair Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said in an interview that his preference is to give Mr. Massingham one more chance to appear in the fall.

“If he doesn’t co-operate, we’ll issue a second summons and, if he fails to meet that summons, then I think we’ll need to consider our options more seriously,” he said.

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Mr. Erskine-Smith intends to introduce a private members bill Wednesday that would give the privacy commissioner new audit and enforcement powers, including fines for non-compliance.

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