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The questionable ways in which political parties collect data could endanger the democratic process and have harmful consequences for Canadian democracy.

In a 2019 investigation report by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) for British Columbia, it was revealed that numerous voters likely didn’t consent to the collection of sensitive information, including their ethnicity, average education, income and the number of people in their household.

While this information may be useful to political parties, the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) does not permit the collection, use or disclosure of sensitive information without explicit consent from the individual.

In the investigation, it was discovered that political parties were collecting too much personal data from potential voters without their consent. This is very similar to the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal that occurred in the United Kingdom back in 2018.

A report to Parliament concluded that Cambridge Analytica harvested the personal information of up to 87 million global Facebook users for political campaigns without their explicit consent. Some of this personal information was then used to target voters during the 2016 US Presidential campaign process.

Rapid Developments in Technological Tools Could Jeopardize British Columbian Citizens and the Democratic System of Governance

British Columbia’s Privacy Commissioner pointed out that rapid developments in technological tools to micro-target and profile voters could pose significant risks for British Columbian citizens and the democratic system of governance.

Given that electoral campaigns are becoming data-driven, personal information is drastically increasing in value. Recent headlines have even labelled data as the “new plutonium,” describing it as a powerful and dangerous commodity that can have serious consequences when handled and used improperly.

According to recent reports, the vast majority of voters in Canada remain unfamiliar with the range of personal data that political parties can collect, use and disclose. Those who do understand the types of personal information that can be collected may not be aware that there currently isn’t a federal privacy legislation that applies to Canadian federal political parties. Only British Columbia regulates the privacy practices of Canadian political parties.

Back in January, an investigation was launched alleging that three major federal political parties had been making “misleading statements about the manner in which they collect, use and/or disclose the personal information of Canadians”. This investigation could completely change how political parties use and collect data in the future.

How Does the Collection of Personal Data Affect Voters in Canada?

To understand how the collection and use of personal data may affect an individuals “willingness to interact with campaign personnel during elections,” the Conversation surveyed Canadians during the 2019 federal election campaign as part of the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge.

The Conversation informed those who responded to the survey that federal political parties in Canada may be gathering and using personal data about voters without their consent, such as their gender, ethnicity and religion. Once this was explained, 51% of those surveyed mentioned that they would be either “somewhat or very unlikely to speak with campaign personnel”.

It is clear once individuals are informed of the questionable data collection practices by political parties in Canada, they may be discouraged from voting altogether. Having said that, 40% of those surveyed by the Conversation mentioned that a political party’s attitude towards privacy made a “moderate or major difference in their willingness to engage with campaign officials.”

At the time of writing, Canadian federal laws only require federal political parties to publicly disclose their privacy policies. Until there’s a federal law that allows individuals to find out what personal data polities parties can collect, use and disclose about them, individuals in Canada may understandably feel discouraged from engaging with officials during elections.

Extending Privacy Legislation to Political Parties: Will It Fix the Problem?

In 2018, the House of Commons Information, Privacy and Ethics committee, as well as Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, declared that Canada’s privacy laws should apply to political parties. In a report addressing digital privacy vulnerabilities, the House of Commons committee recommended that privacy laws should be updated to “better align federal privacy legislation with the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).”

This all came after the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal revealed the issues concerning mass data harvesting. “The evidence that the Committee has heard so far gives rise to grave concerns that the Canadian democratic and electoral process is similarly vulnerable to improper acquisition and manipulation of personal data,” the Standing Committee members wrote in their report.

“In the Committee’s view and in light of the evidence heard thus far, it has become quite apparent that the government of Canada must urgently act in order to better protect the privacy of Canadians.”

While this certainly won’t fix the problem overnight, extending privacy legislation to political parties may finally allow voters to rebuild trust in political parties.