Parties building files on us all

If you're zealous about protecting the privacy of your personal political inclinations during provincial elections, the first thing you have to do is shut down your Facebook page.

Scrub all your other social media sites as well. And never sign a petition or answer the door during the campaign.

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Actually, don't bother. It's already too late.

Information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy released a report Wednesday about how B.C.'s three biggest political parties handle personal information.

The above steps are the first things that come to mind after reading it. But they should all have been taken years ago to make any difference now.

Most people are familiar with the phenomenon of searching a particular topic on one platform - "blue suede shoes," say - then instantly seeing ads for blue suede shoes on their other feeds.

It doesn't happen by accident, of course. Corporations are constantly churning through your personal data; that's their main revenue stream. B.C. political parties are getting into the game, as well, and the report says some of their practices skirt B.C.'s privacy law, if not evade it.

The report includes a compilation of information that the parties can glean from voters' social media presence with minimal effort. They can get all the profile information - email, location, picture, biography. Greens also make note of whether an individual has liked, shared or commented on any of the party's social media posts.

Greens and B.C. Liberals didn't disclose volumes but the NDP revealed it captured data on 40,000 people from Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook during a one-time harvest in the past.

Parties are free to collect information when an individual contacts them via social media because the contact implies consent.

But using the data beyond the purpose of communication is likely outside the law. So if you like or share information about a party, that doesn't give it consent to collect your personal information.

The NDP and the Liberals also try to infer new information from the data they have on hand. The report found that they attempt to predict individuals' ethnicity, gender and age based solely on their name.

"The parties, either manually, or using software, compare an individual's name to historically popular names to estimate their age. Gender and ethnicity are similarly inferred. It's likely that this would go beyond the reasonable expectations of many British Columbians."

While the parties are feeding off social media, they are also feeding information into the bigger platforms. All three of them have supplied personal data to Facebook so that corporation can target those voters with ads. Facebook also processes all names with similar characteristics into one package that it can offer parties as a target audience.

Parties are keen to identify voter preference, but even when you don't volunteer it, they do their best to "score" it using available data.

They use point scales and databases to make guesses based on canvassers' interactions or the number of visits to a party's website or email subscriptions.

None of the parties ask explicitly for permission to make such guesses about your response to a question that you've already declined to answer.

McEvoy said: "None of the parties has to date provided my office with a satisfactory explanation of how such processing is in accord with (the law). I have significant concerns that it may not be."

The office has not received any complaints about the practice but it's likely only because the parties haven't previously acknowledged it's taking place.

They also haven't been transparent about what canvassers are up to while they are at your front door. It's obvious they are asking for support of their candidate. It's obvious that they want to ascertain your voting intention.

Voters give consent to that as soon as they start interacting.

But canvassers for the NDP and the Liberals might also be noting your gender, ethnicity, language and religion, which are considered sensitive categories of information.

"It's highly unlikely... that voters are consenting to this collection."

The information and privacy office is going to keep tabs on such practices, with the view that political parties keeping people in the dark about the significant amounts of personal information they're getting and using "is not sustainable legally or ethically."

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