Canada’s political parties are exempt from privacy laws. Voters say that needs to end

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As federal parties battle in court to avoid privacy rules for voter data, an overwhelming majority of Canadians want more oversight according to recent polling for Elections Canada.

There are virtually no rules and zero oversight into how Canada’s federal political parties collect, store and exploit Canadian voters’ personal information – an increasingly important tool in modern electioneering.

While parties are now required to post privacy policies on their websites, there is no oversight into how they actually use the data they collect, meaning Canadians essentially have to take the parties at their word

The current wild west approach to political privacy is at odds with overwhelming public sentiment, according to recent polling data commissioned by Elections Canada.

“More than nine in 10 (96 per cent of) respondents agreed that laws should regulate how political parties collect and use Canadians’ personal information, including 78 per cent who strongly agreed,” reads an Election Canada survey of voters after the 2021 general election.

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The survey, conducted between August and October 2021, included 18,092 respondents, but did not provide a margin of error for individual questions

Near-unanimity among Canadians on political questions is rare, but concerns about privacy issues have been growing steadily in recent years.

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While private companies and government departments are required to follow privacy laws, for example, notifying Canadians when their information has been compromised, the federal political parties have been exempt from similar constraints.

That has been a longstanding concern for Elections Canada, federal and provincial privacy watchdogs and advocates. But political parties – especially Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals – have credited modern data campaigning as a key part of their electoral success.

In their 2023 budget, the Liberals signaled they intend to bring in a new privacy regime for federal political parties – but offered no details about what those rules would look like, or if parties would be held to the same standards as private companies when it comes to Canadians’ data.

At the same time, the Liberal Party, along with the Conservatives and New Democrats, are in court arguing against the B.C. Privacy Commissioner’s order that their operations are subject to provincial laws.

Asked about why the federal government was moving on the issue now, Trudeau told reporters earlier this month that “different provinces are moving forward with privacy regimes,” and it’s important to have “homogenous and cohesive” privacy obligations for federal parties across the country.

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In a recent interview with Global News, B.C. Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy said that any federal rules should be at least as stringent as provincial laws.

A 2020 Elections Canada discussion paper, obtained by Global News as part of an access to information request, suggests that issues with the political privacy loophole have been well-known within the government for years.

The document raises issues about Canadians’ consent to have political parties use their personal information. For instance, if a voter speaks to a door-to-door political canvasser, does that imply consent to have their information stored by that party? What about incidental information the canvasser might glean, such as ethnicity, religion, or marital status?

When political parties contract outside help – say, from a data analytics firm – should they be able to share Canadians’ personal information? Should there be rules about how political parties combine information from Elections Canada – the lists of voters – with other information?

“Parties have a legitimate need to collect and use personal information in order to better understand the electorate’s needs, communicate with them and increase their own chances of electoral success,” the document reads.

“However, based on the breadth of information that may be collected, directly or indirectly, there may be a risk that voter profiles contain information that is beyond what is necessary for campaigning purposes, and that such information is shared for unrelated purposes.”

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