Despite recent scandals that raised public awareness about how political parties collect and use personal information from individuals, none of Canada’s main federal parties are willing to be fully transparent about what they know about you.
“I think the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal has raised these issues to public prominence, [as well as] the whole issue about how personal data is used in elections, how it’s profiled, how it’s used to target ads,” said Colin Bennett, a University of Victoria political science professor who is an expert on privacy protection.
“Political parties the world over have to do a lot to restore trust, and they need to be more transparent about what data they’re collecting, how they’re using it, and part of that is allowing citizens to have access to it if they wish it,” he said.
There is, however, no federal law allowing individuals to find out what political parties know about them.
And when The Tyee tried to find out using British Columbia’s provincial privacy law, which does include such a provision, none of the parties fully filled the request, and two asserted they aren’t covered by the B.C. law at all.
British Columbia’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner is aware of the jurisdiction issue. A spokesperson confirmed an inquiry is underway into whether the provincial law applies to the activities of federal parties in the province but declined to provide details while the process is ongoing or say when it was likely to be completed.
“I would personally think they are obliged to follow the B.C. legislation,” said Bennett, adding he doesn’t expect a decision until after the Oct. 21 election.
“I really don’t understand why the parties are digging their heels in on this, as some of them are, so we’ll have to wait for the commissioner’s adjudication, which may of course be appealed to the courts, and then the courts will have to resolve that deeper question about federal-provincial jurisdiction.”
Parties exempt from federal laws
Last year, Facebook admitted that the personal information of tens of millions of people was improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica, a digital advertising company that had the ability to connect the data to individuals’ psychological profiles.
The improperly shared Facebook data included information from more than 600,000 Canadians, and there were various connections to people who had worked on campaigns in Canada, including through AggregateIQ, the Victoria, B.C., firm that was instrumental in the 2017 Brexit referendum.
In Canada, however, federal political parties are specifically exempted from the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, the country’s law governing the collection and use of personal information by most organizations.
Nor are they included in the Privacy Act, which includes individuals’ right to request information that government institutions, such as ministries or Crown corporations, may hold about them.
The parties are covered by privacy sections in the Canada Elections Act, but Bennett said its reach is limited.
“The problem is those rules only apply to the voters list,” he said. “They only apply to the data they get from Elections Canada. It doesn’t apply to the wider sources of data that they collect from other places and which they use to populate their databases. That’s the problem.”
Requests to parties
British Columbia, however, is the one province in Canada with a privacy law that extends to political parties. Individuals in the province can find out what data an organization has about them, how they use it, and to whom they may have disclosed it.
In late June, The Tyee made such requests to the four main federal political parties active in the province. The requests said they were for personal information, since that is what the B.C. law allows, and were clear that the person making them is a news reporter.
The law gives organizations 30 days to respond.
Within days, the Conservative Party of Canada wrote to say thank you for taking the time to write and that the request had been forwarded to the media department. Seven weeks later there had been no further response. Nor was there any response to a follow-up email.
For the Liberal Party of Canada, the director of legal affairs, Jess Spindler, wrote at the end of July to say, “We are in the process of gathering the information necessary to respond to your request regarding your personal information held by the Liberal Party of Canada.”
The email said the party would send the response by mail shortly, but by publication time it was yet to arrive.
The NDP took a similar position, saying the party is regulated under the federal elections law, not B.C.’s law. “We comply with all the various pieces of legislation that do apply to our communications with voters. However, we are not required to respond to requests under [B.C.’s] PIPA.”
Then, citing a commitment to privacy and transparency, it provided this reporter with my address, phone number and the name of the only other household member who would be on the voters list, my wife.
“Please note that Elections Canada provides Canada’s NDP with voter names and contact information,” the letter said. “The use of this information is governed by the Canada Elections Act, which permits political parties and their riding associations to use it for communicating with electors, including for soliciting contributions and recruiting party members.”
The response did not meet the B.C. law’s requirement of including the names of individuals or organizations to whom the party may have disclosed the information.
Jesse Calvert, the director of operations for the NDP and the party’s privacy officer, said he and NDP members of Parliament have called for political parties to be covered by the federal privacy law. “We believe in transparency, and we have in the past and continue to call for the removal of the exemption and bringing the political parties within the jurisdiction of the [federal privacy] legislation.”
UVic professor Bennett said he sees no reason why political parties should be given special exemption from privacy laws.
“Like every other organization, they should be abiding basic principles of privacy protection,” he said. “It’s not their data. It’s yours, and they should be giving it to you if you request it and correcting it if it’s inaccurate.”
In most other democracies in the world, with the exception of Canada, the United States and Australia, political parties are covered by privacy laws that require them to tell any individual who asks what information they have about them, and it has never been an issue, Bennett said.
“I just think it’s good practice for any organization to gain the trust of the people they are processing data about by being open about what they’re doing,” he said.
“Open and transparent about what they’re processing, how they’re processing it, what they’re doing with it, who they’re communicating with it. The vast majority of organizations in this country, government and corporate, have got to abide by these rules. I see no reason why political parties should be any different.”
If the parties are going to argue that they are under federal jurisdiction, not provincial, then the federal law should apply and they shouldn’t be exempted from it, he added. “They can’t have it both ways.”
Bennett said the parties need to give more thought to privacy issues.
“They’re extremely resistant,” he said. “They’re acting as a bit of a cartel in this. They don’t want to be more transparent than anyone else, because then they’ll be revealing secrets to the opposition, particularly during an election campaign.”
The Elections Modernization Act, bill C-76, that passed last year required federal political parties to each develop a policy for protecting personal information.
When the advocacy group Open Media recently compared those policies to the guidelines put out by the Chief Electoral Officer and the federal Privacy Commissioner, they found them “frighteningly” inadequate. “Not a single party even came close to meeting these basic best practices,” they found.
With an election approaching, they said, they would be watching to see which parties are willing to make strengthening privacy laws an issue.
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