National Column: Political disconnect on privacy

by Susan Delacourt

The prospect of Statistics Canada collecting Canadians’ personal financial data is the latest cause of burning outrage in the daily political drama in Ottawa – with some justification, it should be said. Privacy is a hot-button issue in a digital age.

But another large data collection exercise, which has been taking place for years in a legal wild west in this country, continues with barely a peep of protest from most of Canada’s political class.

We’re talking about the huge amounts of personal data that Canadian political parties are gathering up about citizens – a process that will only intensify as the 2019 federal election gets closer.

The disconnect of political concern about privacy – full throttle for StatsCan and zero for political databases – makes for a strange spectacle this week.

Somewhat incredibly on Tuesday, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould told the Star’s Alex Boutilier that political data needs “further study” – which is political-speak for no big deal.

Wait. What? The lack of privacy laws over political data has been the subject of immense study for the better part of the last decade – by the privacy commissioner, Elections Canada and crusading academics such as Colin Bennett. The Cambridge Analytica controversy – remember that? – revolved around the scary amount of information held by political parties.

It’s true that political parties know an awful lot about you and your neighbours – not just from what you tell them at the door, but what volunteers observe while canvassing, or even consumer information available for sale to political parties.

When I was researching my 2013 book Shopping For Votes, all parties talked to me about their major efforts to build databases about voters – any information relevant to predicting citizen support (which is a pretty wide field of data, as voting-behaviour experts will attest).

I assume a lot more data has been amassed since.

Yet while ordinary citizens have ways to find out what information has been accumulated about them by private or public bodies, there is no Credit Karma app for information that political parties are holding about you.

About six weeks ago, the information and privacy commissioners issued a joint plea for privacy laws over political data in time for the next election. Privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien called this continuing legal vacuum “highly unacceptable” and said “Canadians should be concerned.”

Yet over and over again, politicians have simply kicked this problem down the road. Theyíre doing it again now – despite attempts by the New Democrats and the Green Party to shoehorn some privacy laws into the huge electoral reform legislation now before the Commons, the government and official Opposition rejected the measures.

Actually, for about an hour or so on Tuesday, we saw the tale of two privacy debates in the House of Commons.

The first one was the noisy, raucous one over the news – first revealed by Global TV last weekend – that Statistics Canada was busy building a “personal information bank” based on data it plans to cull from people’s interactions with financial institutions.

In a matter of days, this has become a full-blown scandal in the Commons, with dark talk of Big Brother and government surveillance.

But after the chamber emptied out after Question Period, a skeleton crew of MPs hung in to talk about the election-reform legislation known as Bill C-76, and privacy – or the lack of it – was also being discussed, in much cooler terms.

“This was our opportunity to put political parties under privacy laws,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May lamented.

This was a much quieter scene than what unfolded in Question Period, even though the privacy issue may be equally large – or even larger.

Make no mistake – the privacy commissioner’s office is paying attention to both issues.

Tobi Cohen, a spokesperson for the privacy commissioner, sent a long, detailed note in reply to my queries on Tuesday about what StatsCan is doing, basically saying that it is concerning, from a privacy standpoint, but legal.

As for the political parties, what they’re doing is legal, too – in that there are no laws – but the privacy commissioner’ office was able to rattle off a number of warnings.

Apparently not loudly enough, though, because while everyone is shouting about StatsCan this week, the political-database problem merits only a “further study” vow, again.

Twitter: @susandelacourt
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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