Why it matters for political parties to ask for consent about data collection

British Columbia’s information and privacy commissioner is calling out all three of the province’s major political parties for over-collecting sensitive information and leaving voters vulnerable to privacy breaches.

Privacy is a part of democracy, says B.C. information and privacy commissioner

The province's Personal Information Protection Act requires political parties to obtain consent from individuals to collect, use, or disclose information about them. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

British Columbia's information and privacy commissioner is calling out all three of the province's major political parties for over-collecting sensitive information and leaving voters vulnerable to privacy breaches.

The commissioner, Michael McEvoy, has given the parties six months to become more transparent with people before he decides if a more detailed audit is required.

McEvoy spoke with CBC's host of The Early Edition Stephen Quinn about the new privacy report released this week.

What did you hear from the public that prompted your investigation into provincial parties in the first place?

Our office has received a number of complaints over time about some collection of data by political parties.

And, of course, there have been events globally that, I think, have drawn people's attention to these matters.

What we found was political parties do collect a lot of information and a large part of the problem is that they don't ask consent.

What personal information is a political party allowed to collect?

The chief electoral officer of the province is required to give parties that ask a full, complete list of 3.3 million voters in the province — so that contains a person's name and address.

Parties then merge other data into that.

That could include anything from a person's age, ethnicity, the number of years they've lived at the residence, even their Facebook I.D. or Twitter I.D.

All of these things can be combined to paint a profile of a voter.

That might be permissible but there needs to be a much clearer and more transparent process by which parties collect that information.

Political canvassers can record all sorts of information observed from door-knocking, like the apparent ethnicity or age of the voter, and often the voter won't know, says Michael McEvoy. (Ken Tannenbaum/Shuttershock)


I'm sure many of us have seen a targeted ad on social media for a political party we never signed up for or even support. Why might that be happening?

That does happen and, oftentimes, we may not get a complaint at our office because people don't actually understand the process that's going on.

That's a large part of what's happening now in the data world: people often don't know what to complain about or sometimes feel helpless because they have no idea what's going on behind the scenes.

Part of the reason for this investigation was to pull back that curtain.

What would you like to see the parties do?

There's a range of things including better training for party officials and volunteers. It starts with a greater awareness.

Other measures include better auditing of the databases that they have to ensure there's proper security around them.

But, first and foremost, the parties just need to be more transparent particularly at the point that they're collecting information.

Our Personal Information Protection Act is about consent and giving people options.

That's very important in a democracy.

This interview aired on The Early Edition on Feb. 7, 2019 and has been edited for clarity and length. Click on the audio link below to hear the full interview.

British Columbia's information and privacy commissioner is calling out all three of the province's major political parties for over-collecting sensitive information and leaving voters vulnerable to privacy breaches. 8:08

With files from The Early Edition

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