OTTAWA—Three federal political parties are facing a probe of their near unfettered collection and use of Canadians’ personal information.
The Competition Bureau confirmed Wednesday that it has launched an investigation into how the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats amass and use data on Canadian citizens.
The probe is the result of complaints that parties are misleading Canadians about what information they collect and analyze on voters.
Federal political parties have been collecting personal information on Canadian citizens for years, but they have not been subjected to the privacy laws that private interests and government agencies have to follow. There is almost no transparency into parties’ data operations — an increasingly central part of how parties identify and target voters.
A digital rights group founded by former BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsillie wants to change that.
In their complaint to the Competition Bureau, the Centre for Digital Rights argued parties are violating competition laws by misleading Canadians about how their personal information is collected and used.
“Since May 2018, CDR has been raising serious and urgent concerns about the data protection policies and practices of Canada’s three main federal parties … in discussions (with) a number of Canadian law enforcement agencies,” a statement from the organization read.
If the Competition Bureau rules in favour of the complainants, the parties could face fines of up to $10 million, according to CDR lawyer Bill Hearn.
But the goal isn’t to bankrupt political parties, Hearn said. It’s to try and encourage them to change their ways.
“And to admit that (federal parties) are subject to all the same laws that every other organization in the country are required to follow,” Hearn said in an interview Wednesday.
“Political parties somehow feel, one way or another, that they’ve got exemptions (from the law). And we’re coming back and saying, no, that’s a dangerous misconception … you need to comply.”
The Competition Bureau confirmed the active probe into allegations “the three political parties have made misleading statements about the manner in which they collect, use and/or disclose the personal information of Canadians,” a spokesperson for the regulator said.
“The bureau is currently gathering evidence to determine the facts. There is no conclusion of wrongdoing at this time,” wrote Marie-Christine Vézina in a statement.
“As the bureau is required by law to conduct its work confidentially, we can’t provide any further details about the investigation.”
Data has become central to the work of federal political parties in Canada. The Conservatives Constituent Information Management System has been credited as an important part of the party’s electoral successes between 2006 and 2015.
The Liberals — including close advisers of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — are big believers in the power of data operations. The governing party is thought to have erased the Conservatives’ long-held advantage in data operations — perhaps even surpassing their rivals.
But recent years have shown a significant dark side to the misuse of big data as a political tool. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which tens of millions of social media users had their personal information unknowingly collected and used in political campaigns, is only the most well-known example.
An all-party House of Commons committee recently recommended political parties be explicitly included under Canada’s private sector privacy laws, known as PIPEDA — the kind of basic expectations and rules governing how private enterprises must protect Canadians’ personal information.
The CDR is promoting that recommendation as the government considers changes to PIPEDA, although Liberals have shown little enthusiasm for extending privacy rules for political parties.
“Protecting the information of the Canadians with whom we engage continues to be a foremost priority for the party in all our operations, organizing, and communications,” wrote Braeden Caley in a statement.
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Jesse Strean Calvert, the deputy national director of the NDP, said the party will continue to “push for change” in applying privacy laws to Canadian federal parties.
“We continue to operate within the rules and regulations that apply to federally-regulated political parties. For years, New Democrats have been pushing for stronger privacy laws that would include federal political parties,” Strean Calvert wrote in a statement.
A spokesperson for the Conservative Party did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.