Liberal Party of Canada fights privacy rules for parties as government mulls legislation

Click to play video: 'Federal political parties fight B.C.’s privacy rules'
Federal political parties fight B.C.’s privacy rules
WATCH: Federal political parties are subjected to virtually no rules or oversight when it comes to collecting personal information, and they'd like to keep it that way. But British Columbia Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy doesn't think that's a good idea. David Akin reports – Apr 13, 2023

The Liberal government thinks the data federal political parties collect on Canadians should be subject to privacy laws, while the Liberal Party is in court actively arguing against such safeguards.

Federal political parties are exempt from federal privacy rules, meaning they can collect, store and exploit personal information gleaned from Canadian voters with virtually no rules and zero oversight.

It also means the safeguards imposed on every private company and most public institutions that handle Canadians personal information do not apply to federal political parties.

A single reference in the back of Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s 2023 budget plan suggested the government intends to change that, promising new privacy rules for political parties.

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“Different provinces are moving forward with privacy regimes that do vary from one region to the next,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Winnipeg Wednesday.

“It’s going to be important that we make sure that our federal electoral system and our federal rules around political parties are homogenous and cohesive for political parties that work in jurisdictions across this country.”

Data is crucial in modern elections. Parties gather information from a variety of sources — petitions, door-to-door canvassing, at political rallies and through responses to email blasts.

That data is then exploited to allow parties to tailor policy, micro-target segments of the electorate, and generally inform their political strategy. While these modern electioneering tools have exploded in recent years, privacy laws have remained largely static.

Click to play video: 'Canadian privacy watchdogs launch TikTok investigation'
Canadian privacy watchdogs launch TikTok investigation

In the best-case scenario, parties are independently safeguarding voters’ personal information and putting that data to legitimate, political ends.

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In the worst-case scenario, the information is open to hacking campaigns, is being exploited in ways Canadians never properly consented to or is being combined with other data — either purchased or purloined from the public internet — to give bad intel that shapes Canadian politics.

The trouble is that without any independent oversight, Canadians are left to take parties at their word about how their data is used.

B.C.’s privacy commissioner, Michael McEvoy, wants to change that. In March 2022, he issued an order stating that the province’s privacy laws — which apply to provincial parties — apply to federal parties operating in that province.

That case is expected to be heard on May 8, and will pit the major political parties — the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP — against McEvoy’s office and privacy advocates.

“Citizens of British Columbia, in dealings with their political parties, whether they be provincial or federal … have the protection of privacy law. And that’s something that my office has indicated through its orders, (but) the federal parties have taken my office to court over that,” said McEvoy in an interview with Global News.

“Our expectation is that political parties will ensure that people’s personal information is treated properly and respectfully and legally.”

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But the Liberal Party of Canada – along with the Conservatives and New Democrats – are challenging that ruling, arguing that provincial privacy statutes should not apply to federal parties.

“The Liberal Party says that, because the federal government has not subjected federal political parties to federal privacy laws, it is not open to British Columbia to subject them to privacy legislation,” reads a summary of the governing party’s argument to McEvoy’s office.

Apart from Elections Canada rules around parties’ handling of the list of electors, the Liberals argue, “other personal information can be collected, used and disclosed without the same restrictions.”

Global News asked the Liberal Party if, given the government’s intention to bring parties under privacy rules, the party would drop their challenge of the B.C. privacy commissioner’s order. A spokesperson for the party did not answer the question.

“At all times, the Liberal Party of Canada fully complies with all Elections Canada rules and regulations for political engagement, in addition to the party’s privacy policy,” spokesperson Parker Lund wrote in a statement.

Lund referred further questions on the government’s plans to Freeland’s office, who had previously told Global News they could not provide more information. Multiple requests for comment to the Conservative Party and the New Democrats were not returned.

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The Conservatives were long considered to have an advantage in modern, data-driven campaigning — using every opportunity to fill the Constituent Information Management System (CIMS) with voter information. But the Liberals’ data game took a major leap forward in the lead up to the 2015 election.

Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff, told Liberal loyalists in 2016 that the data game played an important part in their historic jump from third-place party to majority government.

While some Liberals would concede that parties needed to be under privacy laws, the government has shown little interest in legislating until now. Tucked away in the back of Freeland’s 2023 budget plan, the government indicated that it intended to bring in federal rules for how parties handle Canadians’ information.

“(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 a manner that overrides overlapping provincial legislation,” the budget document read.

Global News requested comment from Minister Dominic Leblanc’s office — who is responsible for the democratic institutions file — and from Freeland’s office. Global also offered to discuss the government’s legislative plans on a not-for-attribution basis, in order to understand the government’s plans on this file.

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Adrienne Vaupshas, a spokesperson for Freeland’s office, said they did not have anything to add.

“We’ll have more to say soon on our plan to legislate budget commitments,” Vaupshas wrote in a brief statement.

A federal official at the budget briefing — who could only speak on a background basis, given the lockup rules — suggested that the government was reacting to the B.C. privacy commissioner’s ruling, and wanted one set of federal rules applied to parties rather than 13 different regulations across provinces and territories.

There are concerns among privacy advocates that the new federal rules — whenever they come — will not be as stringent as the privacy rules imposed on private companies and government departments.

McEvoy said that any federal rules should be at least as strong as his province’s rules — including allowing independent oversight of parties’ data operations.

“If (the federal government is) going to venture into this field, one would expect at very least that the protections that would be in place for Canadians and that Canadians deserve are at least what we have in British Columbia, if not exceed those requirements,” McEvoy said.

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Andrew Clement, a retired University of Toronto professor and one of the complainants that sparked McEvoy’s initial investigation into federal parties, said the parties are in an “inherent conflict of interest” when it comes to legislating their own data rules.

“The way out of that is to show that they’re not doing any special favours for themselves,” by subjecting parties to the same privacy standards private businesses and public institutions must comply with, Clement said.

The office of the federal privacy commissioner, which has long advocated for federal parties to be subject to privacy rules, declined an interview with Global News. But in a statement, the office said the government had not consulted them on the matter.

“Our office has repeatedly called for federal political parties to be subject to legislation that creates obligations based on internationally recognized privacy principles and that an independent third party have the authority to verify compliance,” wrote spokesperson Vito Pilieci in a statement.

“We strongly believe that privacy laws should govern political parties to better protect both privacy and democratic rights.”

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