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IntroductionDiscussion Paper 3: The Protection of Electors' Personal Information in the Federal Electoral Context

Over the last several years, there has been a growing chorus of support for the idea that federal political parties should be subject to rules that govern how personal information is treated.1 These calls emerged after electors' personal information was used to communicate false, misleading or divisive content in an attempt to manipulate electoral outcomes in the UK and the US in 2016. These events raise important questions about the implications of collecting and processing personal information in order to communicate with electors, and how those activities should be regulated.

Cambridge Analytica inappropriately accessed Facebook user data, developed detailed voter profiles and used that information to target ads and attempt to influence electors.2 Foreign entities (such as the Russia Internet Research Agency) used social media to spread divisive messages right before the US election.3 In short, attempts have been made to manipulate electors and their electoral processes.

In Canada, calls for increased elector privacy protections emerged most recently, notably out of concern that elector information could be misused here at home during the 43rd general election.

The discussion about subjecting political parties to privacy laws requires careful consideration in order to balance a number of public interests, including the privacy rights of electors, the right and need for political parties to communicate with them, and fair and equal participation in the electoral process.

This discussion paper focuses on the building blocks of political parties' campaign strategies: electors' personal information. It begins with an overview of electors' privacy expectations. It then outlines the rules governing the lists of electors and parties' privacy policies. The final section discusses the fair information principles and poses questions for consideration to generate discussion on how the principles could apply to political parties, while taking into account the needs of political parties to understand and communicate with electors.


Footnote 1 The Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of Canada, the Directeur Général des Élections du Québec, the federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHI), as well as numerous academics have called for political parties to be subject to fair information principles.

Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould has noted that subjecting political parties to privacy regulation requires further study to reach a balance between electors' privacy rights and the needs of parties to communicate with electors. The Minister said that, while ETHI recommended that parties be subject to privacy rules, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) should study how privacy rules should be implemented to ensure that parties can engage with voters but have a regulatory framework that provides oversight.

Gould, Hon. Karina, and Hon. Navdeep Bains. "Government Response." (No date).; Radio-Canada. « Que font les partis politiques de vos données personnelles? » April 7, 2019.

Footnote 2 The Cambridge Analytica scandal involved Facebook users' personal information being used without their knowledge or consent. A third-party app offered a cash reward for participating in an online survey about personality. The app directly reached approximately 320,000 users. Facebook's settings allowed the app to access the respondents' friends' page likes as well, resulting in a global network of up to 87 million users' data (including the data of 620,000 Canadians). This personal information was used to develop voter profiles and send targeted messages during the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election in 2016. It raised questions about the implications of digital campaigning and how it should be regulated.

Federal Trade Commission. FTC Sues Cambridge Analytica. July 24, 2019.; UK Information Commissioner's Office. Investigation into the Use of Data Analytics in Political Campaigns. Report. 2018. 26.; Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. Addressing Digital Privacy Vulnerabilities and Potential Threats to Canada's Democratic Electoral Process. Report. 2018.; Scott, Mark. "Cambridge Analytica Helped 'Cheat' Brexit Vote and US Election, Claims Whistleblower." Politico. March 27, 2018.; Embury-Dennis, Tom, and Andrew Griffin. "Facebook Facing Maximum £500,000 by UK Privacy Watchdog over Breach of Data Laws." The Independent. July 11, 2018.; Radio-Canada. « Que font les partis politiques de vos données personnelles? » April 7, 2019.

Footnote 3 Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. March 2019.