What are Quebec's political parties doing with your personal information?

A closer look at the big data techniques Quebec's political parties are using to try to win the next election.

A closer look at the big data techniques provincial parties are using to try to win the next election

As the scale of the Facebook privacy breach became clear in recent weeks, users have been deleting their accounts and adjusting their privacy settings. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

It is easy to be spooked by the revelations surrounding the Facebook privacy breach. As many as 87 million users had their personal information passed on to a shadowy political data firm, including Mark Zuckerberg himself.

The firm, Cambridge Analytica, then concocted a program to use the data to pitch specific ads at people based on their personality type — all with the goal of getting Donald Trump elected president.

As the scale of the breach became clear in recent weeks, users have been deleting their accounts or adjusting their privacy settings.

The controversy comes at a critical time for political parties in Quebec. They are already gearing up for the October election, and amassing information on voters is the lifeblood of any campaign.

But they are now also facing greater scrutiny about how they gather information about voters, and what they do with it.

Here is a closer look at the big data techniques Quebec parties are using.

Where do they get my information, and what do they do with it?

Quebec's political parties have access to the name, date of birth, address and gender of every registered voter in the province.

But political parties are hungry for even more information. Using phone banks, online petitions or old-school door-to-door visits, they will try to build as complete a profile as possible of their potential supporters.

"If you open the door, they actually tell the people who do the door-knocking, 'Look around, look at their house, see if they have a dog, try and figure out what's in their backyard. Do they have a swing, try and figure out how old they are,'" said Erin Kelly, who heads the Ottawa-based market research firm Advanced Symbolics and has worked with political campaigns in the past.

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg testified before the U.S. Congress earlier this week about privacy issues. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Following the example set by Barack Obama's pioneering 2008 run for president, all the major parties in Quebec have since developed powerful computer programs where they input the data they've gathered.

These programs — called political engagement platforms — help parties track their interactions with voters and rank them on how likely they are to vote for them come election day.

Campaign specialists note there is nothing new about the strategy. But modern computing power means they can be more systematic in their approach.

As opposed to trying to canvas 40,000 people in a riding, these database programs allow a party to identify, say, the 12,000 who would consider voting Coalition Avenir Québec. Less time is wasted courting diehard opponents, or supporters.

"With the help of these systems, we are able to target the electorate a bit more, to work a much smaller territory and be more efficient in our performance," said Brigitte Legault, who is in charge of the CAQ's election campaign.

Is that different from what Cambridge Analytica did?

There are two important differences between how Quebec political parties operate and what Cambridge Analytica did for the Trump campaign. 

First, Cambridge Analytica was given access to the personal information of millions of Facebook users without their knowledge. It was gathered by an app — thisisyourdigitallife — that harvested data not only from people who took a personality test, but their friends as well. 

Other than the information provided by the chief electoral officer, Quebec's parties say they don't access anyone's information without their consent.

The second big difference revolves around something called micro-targeting, which is basically about figuring which political messages will work best for a particular segment of the population.

Cambridge Analytica needed personal information because it was targeting ads at the most micro level possible, the individual.

Quebec's political parties operate at a more general level. They won't buy data about you specifically, but about people like you. This is what's called aggregate-level data and comes mainly from marketing firms.

An screenshot of the political engagement program NationBuilder. All of Quebec's major political parties have developed similar programs to help manage the data they gather about potential voters. (Creative Commons)

Take, for example, Environics Analytics, which does work for the Quebec Liberals.  

They've examined the results of the previous election, poll by poll. In other words, they're not interested simply in how people in a particular riding voted, but how those who live on specific streets voted.

Then they cross-reference these results with publicly available information about the kinds of people who live in these areas.

Some of this information is the straight-up demographic data contained in the census, such as family size, income, ethnicity.

But it also includes data from marketing and social values surveys, and includes estimates about attitudes toward matters such as the role of government or romantic relationships.

"Our thousands of data points … allow us to paint a picture of different voter groups that a political party might be targeting," said Rupen Seoni, a senior vice-president with Environics Analytics.

"It allows them to see which types of voters are more likely to vote for them, versus for an opposition party, so they can tailor their messaging and guide their canvassers to knock on the doors that are going to be the most productive for them."

This approach, Seoni adds, is privacy friendly. None of the information they provide to political parties is about individuals per se; it is about patterns of behaviour of groups of people.  

Does this actually work?

Several experts don't believe Cambridge Analytica's claims that their technology played a significant role in winning the election for Trump.

But there is also scepticism about the effectiveness of micro-targeting more generally, even the kind practised by Quebec's parties.

It presumes that people's attitudes and behaviours don't change between election periods.

For many years, the federal Conservatives were innovators in the use of micro-targeting in Canada, and it paid electoral dividends for them.

But by looking to previous elections to anticipate what will happen in the next one, blind spots developed. That old data, said Kelly, suggested Indigenous communities and young people would have lower voter turnout rates.

Canadian Chris Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, helped expose the extent of the Facebook data breach. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

So there was little in the Conservative campaign platform that was aimed at these parts of the population.

"Harper really pandered to older people and he did not pay attention to Indigenous people. You know what? Too bad for him that in the 2015 election young people and Indigenous people actually came out to vote," said Kelly.

Kelly's firm uses artificial intelligence to monitor social media. This offers a real-time snapshot of public opinion, which she says enables them to make more accurate recommendations to their clients.

"I tell political parties, 'Micro-targeting is not even effective. Why would you want to waste your time with it?'" she said. 

"But that's what they want, or some of them anyway. Others are catching on."