The Current

Canada's federal parties aren't covered by privacy laws — is that a threat to democracy?

Data-driven approaches to election campaigns have implications for our democracy as well as our personal data, says one expert.
A mother takes a selfie with her kids in Ottawa, after casting her vote in the 2015 election. Concerns about electoral integrity are growing ahead of next year's ballot. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)
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Can democracy be hacked? And is our data the key?

Recent allegations of unauthorized data use in the U.S. presidential election and Britain's EU referendum have prompted warnings about Canada's federal election in 2019.

Those concerns have been heightened by the fact that federal parties fall outside the jurisdiction of privacy laws, which creates a lack of transparency around the use of voter data, a political scientist says.

"Increasingly, elections have become data-driven and political parties and candidates have assumed that they can win elections if they just have better data," University of Victoria professor Colin Bennett says.

"It's worth remembering that parties play a very unique and special role in our democracy. We expect them to educate voters, we expect them to mobilize voters and to a certain extent, they need personal data to do that."

That approach has implications for our democracy, as well as our personal data, he says.

But data in and of itself is not the issue, he says.

"[The questions raised] have to do with whether we really want our elections to be so driven by data; whether we should allow political parties to shop for votes... whether the logic of the consumer marketplace should also apply to how our public discourse and our elections."

He argues that privacy laws in other countries, which don't differentiate between public, private, or non-profit organizations, should be the norm.

President of the Treasury Board Scott Brison says that he has reached out to the Privacy Commissioner, Canada's intelligence services and to Facebook to ensure that the privacy of Canadians has not been breached. 0:27

"It's just a question of getting political parties to abide by the same basic privacy principles that apply to our government institutions and to our commercial organizations."

'The game changer today is online'

Data use in election campaigns is nothing new, according to acting Minister of Democratic Institutions Scott Brison. It dates back to the 1970s and the use of mail.

"The game changer today is online. It's very important that modern political parties engage Canadians where they live, and largely today that is online."

There are clear guidelines on the use of data in the Canada Elections Act, he says. Major political parties have also adopted privacy policies, which explain how they collect, retain, use and share personal information.

Christopher Wylie told CBC News that Cambridge Analytica targeted millions of Americans during the election campaign without their knowledge based on psychological profiles and surveys. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Brison emphasizes that all political parties use data, "but we should not assume the political parties are using that data for nefarious reasons."

"It's important that we understand the difference between foreign-launched cyberbots thwarting domestic election results, and political parties using data responsibly to better engage Canadians."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal and Kristin Nelson and Idella Sturino.

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