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B.C. political parties face personal data collection investigation

(via iStock)

How British Columbia’s political parties harvest and use personal information from social media will be subject to an Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner investigation within the next month, Commissioner Michael McEvoy said Sept. 28.

“How are they collecting and using voters’ personal information?” McEvoy asked.

The news was part of McEvoy’s comments in Vancouver to B.C. Information Summit 2018 delegates.

He said only B.C. has the power to make such an examination although his federal counterpart is urging federal parties to get on board.

“Politicians realize that uses, misuses and abuses of data in a personal context can change elections,” University of Victoria political science professor Colin Bennett said. “Political affiliation is something that should only be captured with individual consent.”

Speakers said greater oversight is needed over how Canadian political parties collect and use voters’ personal information.

Political parties identifying their voter bases can vacuum up personal information shared on social media. And that can start with something as simple as an election voters’ list readily available to political parties.

McEvoy said reviews of how parties use information has already led to auditing in the United Kingdom, where he has assisted the work of that country’s information commissioner, his B.C. predecessor.

“That is something we are going to be doing in British Columbia,” he said.

Bennett said political parties “are the major organizations that fall between the cracks of a privacy regime that is either federal or provincial or is corporate or government.”

He said parties use voters’ lists as the basis for gathering information on members of the electorate.

Bennett cited the example of Liberalist, the federal Liberal Party’s voter identification system.

He said use of the list is excluded from no-phone-call regulations of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission designed to prevent nuisance calls.

As well, Bennett explained, parties are not covered by federal anti-spam legislation.

That law prevents companies from sending people messages via electronic devices.

He said the proposed federal Election Modernization Act sections supposed to deal with privacy are “basic and incomplete.”

Further, Bennett said, parties do have privacy policies but those are vague and don’t necessarily mesh with each other.

Curiously, explained former Manitoba NDP government cabinet employee Jason Woywada, if a political party canvasser goes out knocking on doors and loses a voters’ list, “that’s a data breach,” because it puts personal information in the hands of people untrained in its control.

The issues surrounding use of personal data were highlighted recently in the Cambridge Analytica case, Bennett said.

The company is alleged to have harvested information from 50 million Facebook users to help President Donald Trump take the 2016 U.S. election.

In March, Canada’s privacy commissioner, Daniel Therein, announced an investigation into alleged unauthorized use of Facebook profiles.

The investigation is to examine Facebook’s compliance with the federal private sector privacy law, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

The U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office has an ongoing related investigation.

That probe involves Victoria, B.C.-based AggregateIQ Data Services Ltd. (AIQ)

McEvoy, who was part of the work in the U.K., said his office is investigating the company.

Denham’s office said in a July 11 report that AIQ had personal data of U.K. voters provided by the Vote Leave organization during the Brexit campaign to leave the European Union.

“We are currently working to establish from where they accessed that personal data, and whether they still hold personal data made available to them by Vote Leave,” the report said. “We have, however, established, following a separate report, that they hold U.K. data which they should not continue hold.”

Denham’s office is working with Therien and McEvoy’s offices on that investigation.

“These are overlapping matters,” McEvoy said.

– Jeremy Hainsworth, Glacier Media