Budget 2023: Privacy changes may be coming for political parties and voter data

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One of the biggest loopholes in Canadian privacy laws might soon be filled, with the Liberal government considering bringing in rules for political parties collecting and using voters’ personal information.

There are virtually no rules for how federal political parties collect, store and use personal information from voters – collected in a variety of ways, from email petitions to door-to-door canvassing. That information fuels modern election campaigns, directing the parties’ outreach and informing their election policies at a fundamental level.

While parties now voluntarily publish privacy policies – giving Canadians some hint at how they use that data – there is still no oversight on whether they make good on those policies.

That may soon change, according to an offhand reference buried at the back of Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s 2023 budget.

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“(The) government proposes to amend the Canada Elections Act to establish a uniform federal approach in respect to federal political parties’ collection, use, and disclosure of personal information in manner that overrides overlapping provincial legislation,” one of the document’s appendices reads.

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There is no other mention to the Canada’s Elections Act or privacy rules for politicians in the rest of the budget document.

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A federal official, speaking to reporters on background at the budget briefing, explained that the move was in response to a recent ruling from British Columbia’s privacy watchdog that federal parties were subject to provincial privacy laws.

While parties litigate that issue in the courts, the official said the government is considering bringing in federal rules – meaning parties would not have to deal with 13 different privacy regimes across provinces and territories.

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But the potential federal legislation also comes at a time when the Liberals enjoy an edge over their political opponents when it comes to the reams of voter data they have in internal systems to inform their election planning.

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Both Liberals and Conservatives in Ottawa believe the governing party has had that advantage since the 2015 election that brought Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to power, and the Conservatives have struggled to catch up.

The Conservatives are currently working on plans to overhaul their own voter information system – known as the Constituent Information Management System (CIMS). It’s a costly and complicated endeavor, potentially made more complicated by the specter of a new political privacy regime.

The federal official said the proposal’s inclusion in the budget book doesn’t guarantee new privacy measures will be included in the budget bill – omnibus legislation that usually includes the government’s fiscal plans as well as a plethora of related, and sometimes unrelated, initiatives and plans.

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But it’s the strongest signal the Liberals have sent to date that they are considering closing the political privacy loophole.

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