Statements and Speeches
Remarks of the Chief Electoral Officer
Breach of Personal Information Involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook
Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics
November 1, 2018
Check Against Delivery
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with the Committee today.
As you know, the digital sphere has transformed the way society collects, creates, shares and consumes information. While these transformations can benefit democracy, they also give rise to complex threats that present new challenges. This is a matter of importance and concern for Canadians as we prepare for the next general election.
Today I would like to address four subjects that have drawn Elections Canada's close attention and that relate to your study:
- foreign interference
- the digital information environment
- cybersecurity, and
I am grateful for this opportunity to explain to the Committee what role Elections Canada is playing to preserve trust in our electoral process, and to outline where we are collaborating with others, on the understanding that no single solution and no agency working alone can address these threats.
Let me first start with the issue of foreign interference, which overlaps in part with the other topics that I have identified.
In Canada, recent concerns about foreign interference have been primarily around issues of foreign funding of third parties—entities that seek to influence the electoral debate without participating directly as parties or candidates.
Political financing rules in Canada prohibit third parties to use for election advertising purposes contributions that come from a foreign source. The current rules, however, contain a number of weaknesses and apply only to the funding of advertising expenses, not to other partisan activities.
Bill C-76 would significantly expand the third party regime and include measures that aim to eliminate opportunities for foreign funds to be used in Canadian elections. This includes an anti-avoidance clause and a ban on the sale of advertising space to foreign entities.
As you are aware, foreign interference can take other forms, including disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks.
Digital information environment
The expansion of the web and social media has transformed our information environment. Traditional categories like news, commentary, satire and advertising are quickly dissolving. Citizens are no longer simply struggling to determine who is a journalist; they are unlikely to know whether a given social media post or ad was sent by a bot or a human, or whether it is a genuine expression of belief or part of an influence campaign, domestic or foreign.
There is no simple solution to this, but elements of a response are emerging. Efforts to increase digital literacy are, in my view, a key element. It is reassuring to know that Canadians are increasingly cautious about what they see or read on social media.
In the electoral context, the Canada Elections Act currently requires election ads placed by parties, candidates and third parties to bear tag lines saying who placed the ad. This applies to social media ads. These various entities must also report on their ad spending.
Bill C-76 would include a requirement for social media platforms to publish and preserve archives of election and partisan ads. This is a positive step that supports transparency and aids enforcement.
Bill C-76 would also clarify and expand existing provisions against some kinds of online impersonation, as well as false statements about candidates.
Elections Canada's specific and essential role is to ensure that Canadians have easy access to accurate information about the voting process, including where, when, and how to register and vote.
In preparation for the next election, we plan to launch a voter information campaign starting next spring. We will also be monitoring the social media environment to enable us to rapidly correct any inaccurate information about the voting process. And we will create an online repository of all of our public communications, so that citizens and journalists can verify if information that appears to be coming from Elections Canada truly is. This is also something that I have encouraged political parties to consider doing regarding their own communications.
Together with the Commissioner of Canada Elections, we have also engaged representatives from social media platforms to better understand how they operate and to establish channels of communication to respond to incidents.
A third area of concern is cybersecurity. Federal security agencies are tasked with protecting national security, including cybersecurity. But as you heard from colleagues at CSE, cybersecurity is a team sport—everyone needs to step up and play.
While we continue to rely on hand-counted paper ballots, Elections Canada is increasingly delivering online services to voters, candidates and political parties. One of my key responsibilities is to protect Elections Canada's digital assets, based on the advice and expertise of our federal security partners.
Over the last two years, we have made significant investments to renew our IT infrastructure and to improve our security posture and practices. This includes building and migrating to a new, more secure data centre. As part of this effort, we are also providing security awareness training to staff at headquarters and in all 338 returning offices.
Other participants in the electoral process, including media and political parties, must also protect themselves against hacking. The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security offers excellent resources and advice to everyone. Some measures are inexpensive and effective. Others, however, may require significant investment.
In this context, you may wish to consider the need in the future for political parties to receive a special subsidy to help them upgrade and improve the security of their IT systems, and explore ways in which such a subsidy could be fairly achieved.
The last point I want to address is the issue of privacy. This Committee has recommended that political parties be made subject to basic privacy rules and oversight by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. This is a recommendation that I also support and have made in the context of Bill C-76. I was disappointed that it was not accepted at committee.
Political parties and candidates have, by law, access to basic voter data through the voters' lists: name, address and numerical identifier. This is necessary to allow them to reach out to voters. They also have, by law, access to the record of votes cast, commonly referred to as "bingo sheets", which tells them at the end of each day of advance polls and at regular intervals on polling day, who has voted. This allows them to "get out the vote".
But, beyond this, political parties increasingly rely on voter data to support fundraising and campaigning activities. This data may include information about a person's political affiliation or support, volunteer activities, or other information that the party believes to be relevant to its purposes.
It has been observed that political parties have much to gain in having robust privacy policies and practices, and I believe that that is true. But more importantly, electoral democracy has much to gain.
Mr. Chair, I would like to conclude by emphasising the importance of the work undertaken by the Committee.
While the threats to electoral democracies are real and cannot be eliminated, they can be addressed and mitigated. Elections Canada has taken important steps to strengthen its security posture and to ensure that voters have easy access to correct information about the voting process. We have been and will continue to work with security partners, and I intend to engage with political parties to discuss how they may contribute.
More than ever, the health of our democracy depends on the efforts and collaboration of all participants.
I am pleased to answer your questions.