We give too much personal info to political parties, Élections Québec tells government

Élections Québec wants the provincial government to limit the personal information it is forced to provide political parties, a demand that comes following revelations Facebook may have given a political firm data on millions of its users.

Worldwide scandal over harvested Facebook profiles prompts calls for tighter rules in Quebec

Quebec's access-to-information commissioner is investigating whether any Quebecers had their Facebook profiles harvested by a U.S. political data firm. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Élections Québec wants the provincial government to limit the personal information it is forced to provide political parties, a demand that comes following revelations Facebook may have given a political firm data on millions of its users.

As the controversy continues surrounding Cambridge Analytica's access to Facebook profiles, Quebec's access-to-information commissioner has also launched an investigation into the social media giant.

That investigation is part of an effort by the federal privacy watchdog to determine whether Canadians were among those who had their information handed over to Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that worked on President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign. 

A Canadian whistleblower formerly with the firm, Christopher Wylie, recently told U.S. and U.K. media that he helped harvest information from 50 million unsuspecting Facebook users — information that was then used to build so-called psychographic profiles.

Since Trump's election win, Cambridge Analytica has repeatedly boasted these profiles allowed it to target small segments of voters with advertising tailored to their personalities.

The revelations have prompted widespread concern about how personal information is acquired and handled by political campaigns.

Time for reform: Élections Québec

On Wednesday, Élections Québec reiterated its long-standing desire to reduce the amount of information it's required by law to provide political parties.

"Certain parts of the law haven't been revised in a long time," said spokesperson Alexandra Reny. "Campaign tools have evolved quickly and so have people's expectations about privacy protections."

Élections Québec provides voter lists to Quebec's registered political parties and is required to do so several times a year. 

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie worked for the federal Liberal Party before joining data firm Cambridge Analytica. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

However, since 2013, it has been asking for the right to withhold birthdates and sex, as well as any other information that could identify voter intention, Reny said.

"We don't think this information is necessary in order to communicate with voters."

Élections Québec, which oversees provincial and municipal elections, is also asking to reduce the frequency with which it must transmit voter information to parties outside of campaign periods, and it wants to require them to have data management policies. 

Quebec Democratic Institutions Minister Kathleen Weil did not specifically address the demands made by Élections Québec while speaking to reporters in Quebec City Wednesday. 

"I think it's time to have a real debate about this. Things are going quickly with big data and the use of big data," Weil said.

Changes to Quebec's electoral laws generally require all party support. 

What's standard practice? 

Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are under scrutiny by officials in the U.S. and U.K. for their failure to disclose to users that their personal information had been harvested. That may have violated laws in both those countries. 

But Cambridge Analytica's approach to digital advertising was otherwise standard practice for the industry, even in Canada, said Fenwick McKelvey, a specialist in campaign management software.

Canadian political parties are constantly seeking access to the personal information of potential voters and will supplement information available from voter rolls by buying data from marketing companies. 

They will also contract data firms to conduct predictive analytics that rank voters on how likely they are to respond to a party's message, said McKelvey, who teaches in the communications department at Concordia University. 

Parties will use this information to target certain ridings or demographics with advertising, he said.

"I think it's time to have a real debate about this," said Quebec's democratic institutions minister, Kathleen Weil. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

What concerns observers like McKelvey is how personal data moves between political parties and political data firms.

"This demands more consideration," he said. "That's the key thing for me in this issue: it just highlights how little oversight we have about the data flows that are part of contemporary politics."

Political parties in Quebec are not currently subject to provincial privacy laws. It is not clear, moreover, what security measures they take to secure this data. 

McKelvey is concerned they could be vulnerable to tampering from outside forces, a concern shared by Canadian intelligence officials. 

"I'm hoping you're going to see parties step up to this stuff, because they've been really reluctant to get ahead of this issue for a long time," he said.  

"It's become more and more untenable for political parties to stay silent like they have."

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit

Journalist

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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