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Canada has ‘fallen behind’ in powers to do battle over privacy with tech giants: UK official

Revelations that Facebook allowed the personal information of millions of its users to be harvested and used in political campaigns has prompted widespread calls for tougher privacy rules.
Revelations that Facebook allowed the personal information of millions of its users to be harvested and used in political campaigns has prompted widespread calls for tougher privacy rules. Loic Venance/Getty Images

The power made available to the Canadian privacy watchdog to investigate companies like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have not kept pace with those granted to his counterparts around the world.

That was the message brought by Elizabeth Denham, the United Kingdom’s information commissioner, to a House of Commons committee studying the breach of personal information harvested from 87 million Facebook accounts by British political profiling firm, Cambridge Analytica.

READ MORE: Cambridge Analytica declares bankruptcy, will shut down following Facebook scandal

“The Canadian privacy commissioner’s powers have fallen behind the rest of the world,” Denham told the committee members.

Her observation comes as Canadian politicians struggle to catch up to other jurisdictions such as the European Union that have pursued stringent new privacy rules in recent years in light of concerns that tech giants like Facebook and Google are not doing enough to protect personal information.

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WATCH BELOW: Canada’s privacy laws must cover political parties: former privacy commissioner

Canada’s privacy laws must cover political parties: former privacy commissioner
Canada’s privacy laws must cover political parties: former privacy commissioner

Earlier this year, revelations emerged that Facebook had allowed an app developer to scrape personal data from millions of user accounts.

That developer then apparently gave that data to Cambridge Analytica.

The firm went on to use that personal information to target users in support of the 2016 campaign of U.S. President Donald Trump.

It was also allegedly used to influence the outcome of the U.K.’s Brexit vote in favour of the camp voting to leave the E.U.

READ MORE: Liberals open to adding sharper teeth to privacy policy rules experts call ‘a joke’

In Canada, political parties are not subject to federal privacy rules and can do virtually whatever they want with the information they collect on Canadian voters – including selling it.

All three major parties say they do not sell the information they collect but there is no independent watchdog with the power to make sure they actually abide by the rules they set out for themselves in each party’s privacy policy.

READ MORE: 3 out of 4 Facebook users still active despite privacy scandal: Reuters/Ipsos

Therrien and other privacy commissioners have repeatedly flagged that as a huge red flag over the years but consecutive governments have refused to do anything to impose more stringent rules on how parties use voter data.

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Instead, the parties continue to keep the loophole open and Denham that is just wrong.

“Just because people are arguing these are good ways to reach potential supporters doesn’t make it right,” she said.

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“I think we need to look at whether there are some red lines at these back office data matching that are possible in today’s world … now’s the time.”

WATCH BELOW: Electoral integrity must balance freedom of speech: Brison

Electoral integrity must balance freedom of speech: Brison
Electoral integrity must balance freedom of speech: Brison

Acting Democratic Institutions Minister Scott Brison tabled a bill on April 30 that the government says will make a “generational overhaul” to the rules governing Canadian elections.

Among the provisions in the roughly 300-page bill is a section that would require political parties to publish privacy policies – but does nothing to make sure they are being enforced.

Privacy experts have slammed the bill over the past two weeks, arguing it is nothing more than “window dressing.”

Others, including former three-term Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, called the proposal “a joke” without any way to let an independent watchdog make sure they follow the rules.

A spokesperson for Brison told Global News the government is open to considering amendments to add an enforcement mechanism.

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However, it is not clear why the government did not include one despite repeated calls from privacy commissioners over the years.