Canada’s privacy watchdogs are collectively calling on all levels of government to force political parties to disclose any personal information they hold on voters and allow for independent oversight to ensure they are respecting the privacy of the electorate.
In a joint resolution published Monday, Canada’s information and privacy ombudsmen and commissioners say recent events have revealed concerning practices deployed by political parties using digital tools to collect and use personal information – often without their knowledge or consent – to target individuals for political gain.
These increasingly sophisticated big data practices raise new privacy and ethical concerns, the commissioners say, underscoring the need for greater transparency.
“Information about our political views is highly sensitive and it’s clearly unacceptable that federal and provincial political parties are not subject to privacy laws,” federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said in an interview Monday.
In March, Therrien launched an investigation into the alleged unauthorized use of some 87 million Facebook profiles globally – including those of more than 600,000 Canadians – by Cambridge Analytica, a firm accused of improperly helping to crunch data for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Therrien said his officials are still poring over data holdings from Facebook and B.C.-based AggregateIQ, which has also been implicated in the Cambridge Analytica data breach. A team of investigators visited the Victoria, B.C., company last week to gather information for the probe, Therrien said.
The companies have so far been co-operative with this investigation, he said.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal shone a spotlight on how parties use personal data to target voters for political gain.
The federal Liberals have proposed changes to national election laws that would require parties to enact privacy policies.
Therrien said the legislative proposals in the bill, known as C-76, add “nothing of substance” for privacy protection, noting the new law does not establish standards for how personal information is handled, nor does it allow for independent oversight.
“We have a federal election in a year’s time in Canada and political parties federally are not subject to privacy laws. I think Canadians should be concerned,” Therrien said.
“I think it would be truly a missed opportunity if the government did not augment (or) improve bill C-76, and if Parliament does not address that issue before the next election.”
British Columbia is the only jurisdiction in Canada that has brought political parties under privacy law. Voters in B.C. can also complain to an independent body about use of their private information by parties.
B.C. privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy said he believes the rest of the country would do well to adopt similar laws.
And he’s not alone.
A the House of Commons privacy committed recommended earlier this year that privacy laws should be extended to cover political parties, and give greater investigative and enforcement powers to the federal privacy commissioner. MPs on the committee warned in their June report that Canada’s electoral process is “vulnerable to improper acquisition and manipulation of personal data” and pushed the Liberals for urgent action.
Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who co-chairs the committee, has introduced a private member’s bill to grant Therrien greater powers, including the ability to levy fines and launch proactive audits. He pointed to more extensive powers of sanction that exist for ethics and privacy officers in the U.K. and the European Union as examples of stronger systems.
“In Canada, if a company intentionally breaks the law and misuses our personal information, there is really no serious or significant recourse,” he said.
“There might be sort of a ‘name and shame’ ... but we certainly don’t see companies take the proactive measures that they should to respect the personal information of Canadians.”
Nicky Cayer, a spokesperson for Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, said measures in bill C-76 are part of “robust” new privacy rules for political parties.
She also pointed to one of the committee recommendations that said any changes should not outright ban the use of personal information by political parties, but rather regulate and disclose its collection and use.
“We are following the committee’s conclusions by ensuring that political parties have publicly available privacy policies, while allowing them to continue engaging Canadians in a fair, democratic process.”