The House: Welcome to the data economy

This week on The House, the UK's data watchdog blasts Canada's political parties for a lack of transparency around how they use voters' personal information, and a researcher walks us through how she uses data from Statistics Canada to do her job. The NDP's parliamentary leader Guy Caron reacts to Bombardier's massive job cuts, our In House panel tackles Tony Clement's extortion scandal, and Chris visits a special WWI commemoration exhibit in Ottawa.
U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham says it's time for Canada to take a hard look at privacy and elections. (CBC)
Listen to the full episode49:59

Canada's political parties have a privacy problem — and with less than a year to go until the next federal election, it's more critical than ever that Canadians start asking hard questions about how they're handling personal data, says the United Kingdom's information commissioner.

"The way political parties acquire information on individuals should be transparent," Elizabeth Denham told The House. "Whatever's going to happen in the future, these micro-targeting techniques are only going to get stronger."

Denham knows what she's talking about. The U.K. data watchdog — a Canadian who spent six years as British Columbia's privacy commissioner — just wrapped up an 18-month investigation into political advertising following the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica's alleged improper use of data harvested from tens of millions of Facebook users.

Denham told host Chris Hall that after her team of 40 investigators combed through 700 terabytes of seized data — the equivalent of 52 billion pages — they came to some sobering conclusions.

"We examined the practices of political parties and campaigns and we were astounded by the amount of personal information they had available, and also the lack of transparency and disregard for voters' privacy," she said.

Now, Denham is calling on the international community to start policing the data policies of political parties, campaigns and social media companies like Facebook.

"It's a global issue and it needs a global solution. The laws have to allow for extraterritorial reach and we can't do it alone," she said.

PM Justin Trudeau confirms an investigation will be undertaken by the Privacy Commissioner after reports that StatsCan was collecting personal banking data of hundreds of thousands of Canadians. 0:18

In Canada, Denham said, she'd like to see stricter privacy laws on the protection of citizens' data, similar to laws already in place in the European Union.

"In the EU, we had a once-in-a-generation reboot in improvement of our data protection laws," she said. "To look behind the curtain to examine algorithms, to issue sanctions and fines when companies get it wrong. These are tools that are not available to the Canadian privacy commissioner."

Canadian political parties still aren't subject to any rules governing the personal information they gather on citizens — everything from names and addresses to political opinions.

The Privacy Act governs information held by government bodies. The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) applies to private companies. Political parties are exempt from both laws.

"In the U.K., people just take for granted that the privacy law covers all of the players in the ecosystem and that the regulator has real tools to act," said Denham.

'We were astounded by the disregard for voters' privacy,' says Elizabeth Denham. 12:31

Advice and answers on what's going on with your data

The entrance sign to Facebook headquarters is seen in Menlo Park, California, on Wednesday, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage - RC1443F580F0 (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

A popular warning from parents to their kids goes something along the lines of "if you put it on the Internet, it'll stay there forever."

Government and businesses are beginning to learn that lesson the hard way — not only is the online world increasing in scope and size, but so are the threats to personal information.

New changes to privacy laws in Canada came into effect on Nov. 1, changing the regulations and reporting procedures for companies that handle sensitive data.

Companies now have to tell people if their information has been breached, inform the government of the issue, and keep a record of any and all breaches.

"This act is a good step in the right direction," David Masson, the Canadian leader of Darktrace, a company that deals with AI and cyber security, told The House.

"We've been in the wild wild west of the Internet for a long time."

Masson explained it currently takes an average of 200 days for a hack or breach to be detected.

"They don't see anything until the effects of what's gone wrong become apparent and that can be a long, long time."

The Canadian leader of Darktrace discusses data and protecting personal information. 3:32

The world of data isn't just evolving to the benefit of hackers.

Government agencies like Statistics Canada are starting to tap into digital streams to reach Canadians.

This includes a pilot project discovered last week that planned to request access to the financial information of 500,000 Canadian households.

The public outcry was so intense Canada's chief statistician Anil Arora confirmed his agency would put the project on hold until the anxieties can be addressed.

Despite the pushback, Jennifer Robson, a political management professor at Carleton University, told The House that there are legitimate reasons that information is being requested, no matter how poorly Statistics Canada may have publicized it.

Policy makers need the data as survey responses can be skewed because only certain demographics reply to them, so accessing the data would better allow all demographics to be represented, she explained.

PM Justin Trudeau defends Stats Canada's gathering of personal banking information of thousands of Canadians without their knowledge or consent. 2:17

Robson added that information is also helpful for updating the consumer price index, which is important for families who receive benefits like the Child Care Benefit.

In her work, she has applied to gain access to similar data and walked host Chris Hall through the rigorous vetting process required to view the information — which gets stripped of any identifiers.

"I can appreciate that people want StatsCan to be more transparent, more forthcoming, to explain things in plain language," she said. "I think that would be really important, but that's not a ideological issue, that's about being responsive to the public."

Carleton professor and researcher Jennifer Robson discusses data and protecting personal information. 5:21

Is it too late to do anything about Bombardier?

NDP MP Guy Caron says Bombardier needs to be a warning sign for the future. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

It's a Bombardier bombshell — the troubled company announced this week it's slashing 5,000 jobs, half of which will be in Quebec. 

The Montreal-based company said the measures will result in $250 million in annual savings. It also announced it will sell its Q Series turboprop aircraft program to Longview Aviation Capital for $300 million. 

The job cuts come come after hefty public investments by the federal and Quebec governments, and backlash over executive bonuses.

The NDP's parliamentary leader and Quebec MP Guy Caron says he's frustrated and something needs to change when it comes to the government lending money to Bombardier and other companies. 

"From time to time, there might be a justification to actually help companies, especially in a sector as important as aeronautics," he told host Chris Hall. 

"The problem is when you're not attaching any conditions in terms of job protection. If you're lending money, you want to have some guarantees that it will stay in the country, that it will help workers in the country."

The Montreal-based company announced it will sell its Q Series turboprop aircraft program to Longview Aviation Capital for $300 million. 2:22

Last year, the federal government announced $372.5 million in interest-free loans to Bombardier. The year before, the company received a $1.2 billion investment for the CSeries passenger jet program from the Quebec government in exchange for a 49.5-per-cent stake. 

Caron says at this point, there's little the government can do about Bombardier, but there are steps he wants to see set up for the future.

"What I want government to do is actually develop a process, because this isn't the first time the government lends or gives subsidies to a company," he said.

"But we need a transparent process in which we can understand why it is doing so, and what is expected."

As for Bombardier itself, Caron called the company's decision to cut jobs "a stain on Bombardier's reputation."

"When the government lends you money, it's your responsibility to spend it well," he said.

The Quebec MP reacts to Bombardier's job cuts. 6:16

In House panel: Recapping the week in politics

Conservative MP Tony Clement's sexting scandal is raising questions about extortion and national security. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Even though it was a shorter-than-normal week in the House of Commons, it was a busy one. From an announcement that Bombardier would slice jobs to a sexting scandal involving an MP, there was a lot to digest. 

We convened a special panel to revisit some of the big moments of the week — and shed some light on upcoming events. 

Vassy Kapelos is the host of CBC's Power and Politics and Joel-Denis Bellavance is the Parliamentary bureau chief for La Presse.

On Bombardier

What are the political implications, in Quebec particularly? 

JB: I think in the future, any government that will be asked to put any money into Bombardier will be taking a second, third, or fourth look and be very cautious.

Did the feds get the right conditions on the loans they provided?

VK: I'd have to know what the conditions are and they won't reveal them, and neither will the previous government. There is no real transparency around what kind of conditions are attached to federal money, whether it comes in the form of a bailout or in the form of a loan. And I think that's a big problem going forward for any kind of government money going out the door. And I think the optics of it aren't sitting well with Canadians. 

On Conservative MP Tony Clement's sexting scandal

Do you sense this is the last of the story?

JB: No, I wouldn't be surprised if the pictures and video surface at some point in the future. His political career in Ottawa I think is over. I don't think Mr Clement can recover politically from this, because it was a big lapse of judgment to say the least. 

Do you think he will be forced to resign?

B: Maybe not forced to, but I think he will come to the conclusion it's the only way out of this embarrassing situation. What you do on social media is part of political life now. 

How do you think it was handled by the party?

VK: If there is this sort of more common knowledge and the Conservatives would have been made aware of it, there could have been action earlier. What's really crucial about this is the security angle to this. If he didn't disclose something he should have, it becomes a bigger story than just about one man's personal misgivings.

On the fall fiscal update coming Nov. 21

What are you looking for in the update?

VK:  I'm guessing we'll see capital cost allowances. I don't think they're going to cut corporate taxes but I do think there will be some kind of response to what's happening south of the border. I'm also looking to see whether they come up with a timeline for getting rid of the deficit. 

JB:  I think the fiscal update will focus more on the finance minister's relations hip with corporate Canada. That's the key thing that the government wants to focus on, so when it comes around the next budget, they will focus again on the middle class.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Vassy Kapelos and Joel-Denis Bellavance join Chris to talk about the week's top political stories. 7:14

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