British Columbia·In Depth

B.C. political parties and online privacy protection: no smoking gun, but plenty of smoke

The provincial government is taking a wait and see approach to being more aggressive on data protection, something that doesn't sit well with privacy advocates.

There hasn't been a huge scandal with online privacy and B.C. politics yet. That doesn't mean it can't happen

As questions swirl over Facebook and how people's digital profiles are analyzed for targeting, B.C.'s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner is studying to what extent the phenomenon exists in our backyard. (The Associated Press)

How worried should you be that B.C. political parties are unethically using your online data for partisan purposes?

You might know the answer to that in the next few months. As questions swirl around the globe over Facebook, and how people's digital profiles are analyzed for ever more precise targeting, B.C.'s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner is studying to what extent the phenomenon exists in our backyard. 

"We have an ... investigation looking at how political parties elect to use people's personal information," said Drew McArthur, the province's acting head of the independent office this week.

"The unique thing about our position in B.C. is we're the only jurisdiction in Canada that has the ability to investigate political parties," he added. That's because B.C. political parties fall under the jurisdiction of B.C.'s Personal Information and Privacy Act 

McArthur is set to be replaced by Michael McEvoy as the permanent head of the commission on April 1, but it's unlikely the investigation will be downgraded in importance: McEvoy has spent the last six months being part of an investigation in Britain into political groups using data analytics. 

It's unlikely they'll find anything as damning as the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, which allegedly accessed data from 50 million Facebook users and created profiles of them for the 2016 U.S. election. 

But to paraphrase former U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, there are a lot of "known unknowns" in British Columbia that won't put sceptics at ease.

Harder to do on a smaller scale

People in charge of digital communications for major B.C. parties will tell you that a data breach on the scale of Cambridge Analytica hasn't happened here for a couple of reasons.

For one, British Columbia doesn't have a large enough population to make the sort of bulk data scraping effective — it's much easier to create a scalable model for Brexit or a U.S. Presidential election than for 87 small electoral districts — and political parties don't have the resources to invest on the same scale. 

Second, there are metrics that political parties can use to create targeted Facebook ads in America that aren't available in Canada because of our tighter privacy regulations, including those surrounding a person's income.

But that still leaves plenty of room for targeting on a smaller scale, say privacy advocates.

"We have fallen behind and we haven't had things like data breach notification bills, to give consumers the right to know what's happening with their information," said Chester Wisniewski, an expert at the data security firm Sophos Canada.

Wisniewski said people in B.C. and most Canadian provinces are at risk of being in the dark over privacy infringements because of the lack of information companies like Facebook are required to give users about how their data might be used, or when there's a breach. 

"Remember that all this information you're sharing online is being used to monetize that information, and the monetization is being used to manipulate us ... it might seem unimportant as an individual, but when you put that information together, it's incredibly important."

Todd Stone and Michael Lee debate during the B.C Liberal Leadership debate in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday January 23, 2018. (Ben Nelms/The Canadian Press)

Parties know if you've voted

Even before this controversy, there was concern in B.C. over a change to the Election Act in 2015, which gave political parties new information on the names and addresses of people who didn't vote in the previous election.

In theory, it allows parties to try and increase turnout in elections. In practice, it could make it easier to profile voters. 

"They are obtaining more and more information from list brokers and others sources for individuals, and you attach that to a voters' list, and merge it with those who have already voted, that's a very powerful tool for political parties," said Dermod Travis, executive director for Integrity B.C.

In a statement, Premier John Horgan said the B.C. government was monitoring the controversy — and whether the province's privacy laws needed updating — closely. And they're watching the Canadian government's investigation into Facebook

But it was just two months ago that Todd Stone had 1,349 memberships for his B.C. Liberal leadership campaign scrapped days before the vote because of concerns raised by party auditors on how they were signed up.

Stone's campaign blamed Aggregate IQ, an online marketing Victoria-based company doing work for his leadership bid. At the time, it was already under investigation by the privacy commissioner for its role in the Brexit vote.   

Canadian company tied to Brexit and Trump victory

5 years ago
Duration 5:50
Canadian company AggregateIQ has been credited with tactics that resulted in the Brexit win. It also had ties to billionaire Trump backer Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon and Ted Cruz. The CBC’s Wendy Mesley talks to media expert David Carroll about how private companies can help influence how we vote

If Stone's members hadn't been disqualified, he well could be B.C. Liberal Party leader today. Which would have made the issue a lot more pressing to a lot more British Columbians.

But for now, it's still a question of hypotheticals. Much to the worry of people like Travis.

"We have parts of the law still in the 18th and 19th century trying to deal with something in the 21st century, and is moving at a rate far faster than I think most members of the public can follow."


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.


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