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Why Political Parties + Mass Data Collection + Religious Targeting + No Privacy Laws = Trouble

Earlier this week, I opened my mailbox to find the above pictured campaign flyer from the Conservative Party. The flyer asks “Who Is the Real Friend of Israel and the Jewish Community in Canada” on the outside and tries to make the case for the Conservatives on the inside. The flyer was personally addressed to my family and was apparently sent to many Jewish households (or presumed Jewish households). As I noted in a tweet yesterday, I don’t know how my family made it into the Conservative party list. The party might have visited the house, saw a mezzuzah on the door, and made the connection. Maybe it bought a list with the name from a community organization or publication. Or perhaps it just guessed based on geographic areas or names.

Regardless, there are three things I do know. First, this is not the first time this has happened as Jewish new year mailers were sent out years ago by the Conservatives. Second, there is a long history that tells us that lists of Jewish households is a bad idea. Third, successive governments – whether Liberal or Conservative – have declined to do anything about this, preferring that political parties operate with few privacy law restrictions or obligations. As a result, I am unable to file an access request with the party to identify how my family ended up on the list.

The political party loophole in Canadian privacy law has been identified as a problem for many years. PIPEDA, the private sector privacy law, only covers commercial activities, leaving political parties outside its scope. The Privacy Act, the public sector privacy law, applies solely to the federal government, which does not encompass political parties. To date, only British Columbia has adjusted its privacy law to cover political parties. Bill C-76, the electoral reform law, creates requirements for a privacy policy but little else. In fact, as the Privacy Commissioner of Canada notes in its guidance document they have no oversight role with respect to these new obligations.

The issue has attracted increasing attention in recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the realization that the combination of political parties, mass data collection, and no privacy laws creates significant risks for individual Canadians.  Last December, the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics released a report titled Democracy Under Threat: Risks and Solutions in the Era of Disinformation and Data Monopoly. The first recommendation calls for the application of privacy legislation to political parties:

That the Government of Canada amend the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act in order to subject political parties to it, taking into account their democratic outreach duties.

Note that this recommendation came despite the fact that during the hearings the Liberal party witness opposed the measure (“The LPC does not support extending the application of PIPEDA in its current form to political parties, as it’s intended to address commercial activity. It’s not intended to address political activity.”) and the Conservative party witness declined to take a position (“He did not wish to take a position on whether political parties should be subject to privacy laws or whether the Privacy Commissioner should have oversight authority over political parties’ activities”). Only the NDP witness supported the change (“stated unequivocally that the federal government should extend the application of PIPEDA to political parties.”). Yet the committee was persuaded to make the recommendation after also hearing from academic experts, the Chief Electoral Officer, and the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Despite the strong record and committee recommendation, the government declined to implement the recommended reforms. Its response stated:

The Government recognizes that the operating environment for political parties has changed significantly in recent times. With the rise of social media, it is easier than ever to reach voters and to gather a wide range of personal information on the electorate. Given this, and the important role political parties play within Canada’s democracy in educating and mobilizing the electorate, they are vulnerable to threats and attacks from malicious actors, which, if successful, could significantly undermine the public’s trust and damage our democratic institutions and processes.

To help ensure that political parties do their part to protect Canadians’ personal information, measures were introduced in Bill C-76, the Elections Modernization Act, which received Royal Assent on December 13, 2018. Political parties will be required to have a publicly available, easily understandable policy for the protection of personal information. Political parties will also be required to submit their privacy policy as part of their application for registration with Elections Canada and will have to maintain it to keep their registered status. These measures will serve as an important first step to ensuring greater transparency about the ways political parties collect, secure and use data. 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.

Merely relying on published privacy policies isn’t good enough. As Liberal cabinet ministers tweet their disapproval of the Conservative flyer, a more meaningful response would be a commitment that this will be the last federal election in which Canada’s political parties are not subject to binding and enforceable privacy laws.

4 Comments

  1. Kelly Manning says:

    BC is a leader in Voter Privacy. Provincial and Municipal Elections use the same database, maintained by Elections Branch. Any voter can apply to become a Protected Voter and to have their name and address concealed from politicians, parties, and only accessible to specially authorized Elections Branch Staff.

    In one election the Municipal Clerk in Squamish severed the addresses of every voter when a man with a history of violence filed as a candidate and demanded a copy of the voter list to criminally harass his victims. OIPC BC upheld that severance.

    https://www.oipc.bc.ca/orders/355

    What seemed to turn the tide was me filing a Small Claims Action against Nick Vanderstelt / Datex services after his company started sending personalized junk mail to our non published address. Mr. Vanderstelt was very creative outside of court about where he might have obtained my name and address, but when I got him in front of a Judge at a Settlement Conference he admitted that he had data mined a microfiche geo alpha sort copy of the BC Provincial Voter List purchased days before BC FOIPP Act was proclaimed.

    Vanderstelt stated openly that if he was not allowed to buy a copy of the list for that purpose he would create his own fringe party and demand a “free” copy. I pointed out that extracting personal data for soliciting is Prohibited Purpose in the FOIPP Act.

    My point is that many voters would take exception to many candidates an parties obtaining voter list information. At one recent candidates public forum members of the communist party and the Right Wing Christian Heritage Party protested not being given equal time. Most people would prefer not to hear anything from those types of extremists.

    It always amazes me that most people will respond to calls asking them for their voting intentions rather than demanding that pollster add their number to the In House Do Not Call list that the CRTC requires them to maintain and use to avoid repeat calls. The Secret Ballot is the cornerstone of our democracy.

    We saw a Harper MP ranting at a Veteran about why did he expect any help when their information showed that he did not support them.

    Even before Pierre Poutine we saw Harper Operatives phoning people they had identified as NDP supporters on the eve and morning of the 2008 election, remind them to get out and vote for NDP Candidate Julian West, who had resigned in disgrace too late to get his name off the ballot. That wasted enough Anybody But Harper votes to let Gary Lunn squeak in one last time.

  2. Kelly Manning says:

    Many parties rely on “volunteers” or casual short term workers during campaigns. During the 1996 BC election there was an overnight break in at an Election Office in Vancouver. Computers, displays, and printers worth thousands of $ were left alone. The only thing stolen was the optical disc copy of the Voter List.

    On scenario is that someone who worked in the office and knew where the disc was kept came back at night to steal the disc.

    The issue of unauthorized access and data theft by poorly screened volunteers / party zealots and short term employees is just as big a threat as abuse by politicians and their parties.

  3. @sunnshiiny says:

    Greetings Mr. Geist,

    I humbly request that you watch the two attached videos in this twitter thread in full.
    https://twitter.com/visionsurreal/status/1135692725662171136?s=21

    Then read this article.
    https://thinkprogress.org/exclusive-steve-bannon-geofencing-data-collection-catholic-church-4aaeacd5c182/

    Then read this article.
    https://mashable.com/2016/10/07/ucampaign-conservative-apps/

    And this thread.
    https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1046151402442149888.html

    And check the App Store. Conservative Party of Canada is using uCampaign software for their campaign app.

    If you’re interested, I’d be open to collaborating to submit this information, along with your letter you received in the mail, to the proper authorities to investigate the matter further.

    I’ve tried offering this information to mainstream media, but without an example of it being used in Canada, not one was interested.

    Your personalized campaign ad is potentially evidence that micro targeting is occurring in Canada, possibly with unscrupulously collected personal data.

    Please let me know if you are interested.

    Sincerely,

    Sunshiny (Anonymous in public forum)

  4. Pingback: Conservative Targeted Mailer Puts Privacy in Spotlight - Freezenet.ca

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