Election bill doesn't close parties' privacy gaps

The Conservatives' election law reform bill clocks in at 242 pages, but doesn't have any measures to fill gaping holes in privacy protection that experts have been warning about for years.

Longstanding proposals to fix gaps in privacy laws weren't addressed in changes to election law

An election reform bill tabled by Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre clocks in at 242 pages, but doesn't have any measures to fill gaping holes in privacy protection that experts have been warning about for years. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives' election law reform bill clocks in at 242 pages, but doesn't have any measures to fill gaping holes in privacy protection that experts have been warning about for years.

The proposed updates to Canadian election law contained in Bill C-23 don't include measures to protect the private information that political parties hold and could actually make the situation worse, says Colin Bennett, a political science professor at the University of Victoria.

The bill is being studied at the procedure and House affairs committee starting this week. Former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley is expected to appear on Tuesday, followed by British Columbia's former chief electoral officer Harry Neufeld on Thursday. Democracy groups Samara and Student Vote will also appear at the committee on Thursday.

Bennett says he, the federal privacy commissioner and Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand all raised the issue in 2012, but "basically nothing's happened. And then this bill comes along and still nothing's happened."

The only privacy rules that apply to political parties are the ones contained in the Canada Elections Act to protect the information that Elections Canada gives to the parties: basically, the names and addresses of people on the voters' list.

But political parties collect far more than just that: from whether a voter takes a campaign sign to specific issues on which they sign petitions. The parties enter that information into databases to figure out how to convince Canadians to cast ballots for them.

'Enormous problem'

While any other organization falls under federal laws that govern how they collect, use and disclose personal information, the federal political parties fall outside the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). That means they are guided by almost no laws as to how they use or protect the treasure trove of information they amass.

Bennett says it's a problem that the parties don't face the same rules other organizations do.

"The situation you've got here is that you've got a range of largely temporary party workers who come in and out of campaigns depending on whether there's an election, who have not necessarily had any privacy training, who have access to voter information, which in other countries is regarded as highly sensitive," he said.

Bill C-23 would have Elections Canada provide the lists, known as bingo sheets, of which possible voters actually cast ballots on election day or at advance polls.

That information is already available at each of the 66,146 polling stations, officials say, but in practice is not collected in a systematic way.

"What they're asking for is that all this data about who has voted and who has not voted, presumably integrated into their databases like CIMS [the Conservatives' Constituency Information Management System] or Liberalist or the NDPVote, and I have an enormous problem with that because those databases are not subject to any appropriate privacy rules," Bennett said.

"They are collecting data about their citizens, they're profiling citizens, and citizens have no right to what is in those databases and what isn't, no right to correct the information. It's still very unclear about how information is collected, where it's collected from."

Examine identification

Bennett says the bingo sheets measure doesn't seem well thought out and doesn't make it clear whether the information is to be provided on paper or digitally, which would make it much easier to mine for information.

"If it's just a question of retaining the manual printouts and these are just addresses and [voter] numbers ... then that of course all has to be entered manually. But if it's a matter of providing it in digital form, that's a different matter," he said.

Mayrand raised similar privacy concerns about the so-called bingo sheets, on which volunteer scrutineers check off who has voted.

Mayrand also said in a report to the House affairs committee that he's concerned about a measure that would let partisan volunteers see a voter's identification upon request — a concern Bennett shares.

"It could be sensitive information like bank accounts," Bennett said.

The bill would eliminate the use of voter information cards as proof of address, requiring other official documents to prove a voter's address. Those documents include library cards and student ID, but also include documents with more sensitive information like bank or credit card statements, credit or debit card information, and pension plan statement of benefits.

A spokeswoman for Pierre Poilievre, the minister of state for democratic reform and the MP behind the bill, said Mayrand has in the past discussed having the parties adopt a code of conduct for privacy issues. Poilievre encourages Mayrand to pursue that, Cheryl Stone said in an email to CBC News.


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