A conservative political advocacy group is sending out mass unsolicited texts and phone calls attempting to gauge voters’ intentions just days ahead of Thursday’s election, raising questions about privacy and access to Ontarians’ personal data.
The text messages usually begin with a greeting by “Olivia from Ontario Proud,” who then asks which party the recipient plans to vote for in the election. They can respond with the names of the major parties, “Unsure,” “NotVoting” or “?Stop?” to opt out of further messages.
Ontario Proud is a registered third-party advertiser dedicated mostly to posting anti-Liberal and anti-NDP memes on social media. The group’s 364,000 Facebook likes are more than all three main provincial parties combined.
Under Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation, an organization must gain consent to send any commercial electronic message to a person’s electronic address. Ontario Proud founder Jeff Ballingall said the group is not breaking any laws because it is not selling anything.
“Since it’s not for commercial purposes, it’s for market research, and for telling people to vote, it completely aligns with Elections Ontario and [Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission] regulations,” said Mr. Ballingall, a former political staffer and employee of the short-lived conservative Sun News Network. People who have received messages can ask to be put on Ontario Proud’s ”do not contact” list, he said.
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Mr. Ballingall said Ontario Proud hires vendors to gather contact information from the Canadian Numbering Plan, the system overseen by the Canadian Numbering Administrator (CNA), an agency under CRTC oversight that assigns phone numbers to carriers.
He refused to name those vendors, which also send the messages. When asked whether Ontario Proud had any guidelines for such communications, Mr. Ballingall said the vendors are “professionals, so I trust their judgement on it.”
When asked how Ontario Proud’s vendors get those numbers from the CNA, Mr. Ballingall said he had “no clue.”
CNA project manager Glen Brown said the administrating body provides phone numbers to official carriers only (such as Bell, Telus or Rogers) as defined by the Telecommunications Act.
An organization like Ontario Proud “would not have gotten the resources directly from us,” he said, although it could have accessed the first six digits of any Ontario phone number through the CNA website. From there, he said, it would be a matter of trial and error – or automation – to figure out which of the 10,000 combinations of the final four digits will get through to people on the other end.
“If you have a telephone in front of you, you technically do not need a list,” said Mr. Brown. “You can just start dialing numbers if you want.”
The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario said it had not received any complaints about Ontario Proud, but referred further questions about the group to Elections Ontario or the federal privacy commissioner.
Elections Ontario declined to comment on whether it had received any complaints about the group, as it is “not mandated to oversee the content or methods political parties or third parties use to communicate with voters,” spokesperson Jessica Pellerin said.
The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the CRTC did not respond to requests for comment.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested an organization like Ontario Proud could have bought access to numbers from phone companies. In fact, such organizations could only legally get access to the first six digits of cell numbers through the Canadian Numbering Administrator or a similar website. From there, 10,000 potential combinations of the final four digits exist.