Facebook breach a sign Canadian laws need revamp: privacy commissioner

The privacy breach involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook that came to light this week is just the latest in a long series of red flags that should signal to the federal government that privacy laws need to be strengthened, says Canada's privacy commissioner.

Political parties are not currently covered under certain privacy laws

Facebook expressed outrage over the misuse of its data as Cambridge Analytica, the British firm at the centre of a major scandal rocking the social media giant, suspended its chief executive this week. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

The privacy breach involving Facebook that came to light this week is just the latest in a long series of red flags that should signal to the federal government that privacy laws need to be strengthened, says Canada's privacy commissioner.

Daniel Therrien has launched an investigation into the social media giant after millions of users' personal information was obtained by a data mining firm and later used to build voter profiles ahead of the U.S. election.

"The issue is; there is regulation, but the regulation gives so much latitude to companies … that it's clear that laws need to be strengthened," Therrien told CBC Radio's The House.

Part of Therrien's investigation included a Friday meeting between his staff and Facebook officials to see if Canadians' data was included in the information collected by Cambridge Analytica.

But while Facebook's breach is troubling, it isn't the crux of the problem, Therrien said.

"I think that's leading to a growing realization in society that these processes need to be regulated with a bit more rigour."

However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested this week that the companies must do more as well. 

"What we need is for those companies to assume the responsibilities that come with that power," he said, citing Facebook's influence on society. 

He added that he's raised this issue in his meetings with the media titan before, and it's something he takes very seriously. 

'No longer acceptable'

Currently, political parties are not beholden to privacy laws such as the Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

This means they do not have to disclose what information they have, or are collecting, about individuals.

It is those laws the privacy commissioner is referring to, though he's not the only one pointing to gaps in the system.

"It doesn't make sense that political parties and their information is immune to the kind of regulation and oversight that government departments have," Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's former Information and Privacy Commissioner, told The House. "Clearly that's no longer acceptable in this day and age."

Ron Charles on the latest developments involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytics 2:02

Therrien has repeatedly called for the government to re-examine Canadian privacy laws, but little has happened — and that disappoints him.

"They're slow," he said.

While the investigation into Facebook is ongoing and the government continues to consider the best course of action, Cavoukian said Canadians shouldn't be passive when it comes to their privacy.

"I reject that notion that whatever you give online is going to be floating around forever in multiple third party's hands. No. Say no to that."