Director of Privacy, Technology & Surveillance Project
73% of Canadians are concerned or somewhat concerned about how political parties use personal information according to a Nanos poll released today by the Globe and Mail.
So why aren’t political parties covered by privacy law in Canada?
It’s certainly not because parties don’t collect or use personal data. Every party has a voter database to keep track of supporters, donors, the results of knocking on doors—in other words, the information necessary to run campaigns. Some parties give apps to their canvassers to let them input data on the fly. Every party relies on data analysis to assist with strategy. And almost inevitably, every party shares information with third party service providers contracted to do things like process donations or running polls.
It’s also not because there is widespread disagreement about whether or not information about our political opinions is sensitive and deserves protection. Political belief is a prohibited ground for discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act and other such acts internationally. In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation which is influencing the privacy landscape around the globe also explicitly includes political opinions as a “special,” i.e. sensitive, data category. Which raises another point: Canada’s failure to include political parties under privacy law is not because no one else does, as the UK, much of the EU, and New Zealand all have laws covering political organisations.
It’s similarly hard to argue parties should be excluded from privacy laws because it will impair democratic process. We have the perfect example in British Columbia, the one province that has included political parties under their privacy legislation since 2004. Parties there continue to collect information, engage voters, and run effective campaigns in what is arguably one of the most politically exciting provinces in the country.
And it’s absolutely not because experts think it’s a bad idea. During its recent study of the privacy vulnerabilities in Canada’s democratic electoral process, the Parliamentary Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics listened to a long line of witnesses and concluded that political parties really should be covered by a law.
Every provincial Information and Privacy Commissioner in Canada, along with the federal Privacy Commissioner, agrees. In a joint resolution issued Sept. 17, they called on governments to pass legislation to govern political parties’ use of personal information, to provide for oversight over those uses, and to provide people with access to their own information held by parties.
In other words, they asked that political parties be required to abide by the same privacy principles and rules that governments and companies who collect our information have to follow.
So why are political parties not included under privacy law in Canada? The simplest answer seems to be, because they don’t want to be. There simply isn’t the political will to make it happen, as the current government’s electoral reform effort, Bill 76 makes sadly clear.
Private sector companies cannot use your personal information without consent. Parties can. Elected governments are limited in their ability to collect information from us for one reason and use it for another. Political parties are not.
Why does it matter? We live in an age where we want to use data like a magic wand, something we can point and – poof – the way to influence a person or group of people is revealed. Obviously, we should question whether that’s truly the way it works, but simply the perception that it might means that every political party wants as much information about us as they can get. It is clear they are all looking for new and exciting ways to learn about us, to target us, and to predict our behavior, to get a leg up on their competition. So, it’s a problem that there is no laws governing how far they can go.
To be fair, all of the major parties have their own privacy policies. Some of the polices are not bad. But these are rules parties make and enforce for themselves. It is all a matter of trust in a climate where there is a lot of motivation to push the boundaries, and where public faith in the integrity of our political processes is fragile.
While there are no principled reasons why privacy law should not apply to political parties in the same way it does to pretty much every other public and private sector data collector, fair implementation would be essential. Such legislation cannot be crafted in such a way as to handicap an opposition party, or to make compliance disproportionately difficult for parties who are less resourced. Any proposed legislation must be carefully considered, principled and fair: no political gamesmanship can be allowed in the name of privacy protections.
It is really very simple. Political parties who ask for our votes — and our credit card numbers—should be legally responsible for respecting our privacy rights.