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Voter data privacy and the Canadian federal elections

As political campaigns in Canada prepare ahead of the federal elections in October, the big question for many voters is what will the politicians be doing differently this year?

Canada, the US and Europe have been subject to many of the same forces in politics and elections in the past few years including populist movements, disinformation campaigns and general uncertainty around the credibility of the modern election process. However, in one respect the EU has diverged significantly and that is in the area of data protection. The GDPR legislation that was enacted in 2018 has greatly enhanced the rights of digital subjects including voters in Europe. The question in this election year is which way will Canada turn, towards the EU or towards the more liberal data protection laws of the US?

Influence of privacy laws

With GDPR legislation having swept across Europe in 2018, it seems the fear of data misuse is being felt everywhere. Currently, elections in Canada are subject to the Privacy Act. The Privacy Act states that personal information under the control of a government institution should only be disclosed in very limited circumstances and there have already been calls in 2019 for better protocols to be in place by political parties to ensure secure voter information. Of course fears around the integrity of elections have grown since the Cambridge Analytica scandal where indiviudals personal Facebook data was seen to be illegally used during the 2016 US Presidential election.

British Columbia leading the way

With all this happening in the wings, it comes as no surprise that the provincial Information and Privacy Commissioner in British Columbia has already stated that
“The main political parties must do a better job telling people about the information they're collecting about them”. Michael McEvoy said he's giving B.C.'s New Democrat, Liberal and Green parties six months to become more transparent with people before deciding if a detailed audit of party systems, databases or practices is required.

Gaining consent from voters is one of the main requirements under the new European GDPR legislation and McEvoy also believes this needs to happen in Canada. British Columbia’s Personal Information Protection Act requires political parties to obtain consent from individuals to collect, use, or disclose information about them. No other province requires political parties to adhere to privacy laws similar to those in B.C but many think this is the way forward. The Commissioner's report, released in early February, concludes all three political parties have inadequate privacy training and must ensure the same effort goes into protecting personal information as is put into its collection. He said robust communication with voters is vital to a party's existence, but it must be fully transparent for the public.

"Political parties, from senior party officials to volunteer canvassers, must stand ready to demonstrate compliance with their privacy responsibilities. This includes everything from being absolutely transparent about the personal information they collect to providing individuals full right of access to their own information".

Will Canada take the European line?

It is commonplace across Europe now that parties and candidates must make people aware of the reason they are gathering information. Serious work has been put in at grassroots level to ensure all parties are made aware of the implications of a data breach and data protection is becoming one of the main areas of interest for voters when choosing who to vote for.

Large parties in Canada hold vast amounts of data, many conducting specific door-to-door outreach operations. While it is clearly important to do direct outreach to build relationships with voters, the reponsibility is on the political party to ensure they are being compliant with data protection law. With new laws like these being pushed in British Columbia, how long until the rest of Canada follows suit? For now the question that is gaining traction is how transparent are these parties being with voters and is there likely to be misuse of voter data or voter targeting in the 2019 federal elections?

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