What Political Parties Know about You

Article excerpt

Canadian political parties are gathering more and more data on voters all the time. It's time we regulated what data they glean, and what they can do with it.

Les partis politiques accumulent un nombre grandissant de données sur les électeurs canadiens. Il est temps de réglementer la cueillette de ces données et l'utilisation qui en est faite.

The allegations of vote suppression through the practice of robo-calling using automatic dialing and announcing devices during the last Canadian federal election campaign has raised troubling questions about the impact of technology on the way political parties conduct modern campaigns. Both the RCMP and Elections Canada are conducting investigations, and Parliament has resounded with partisan denunciations and denials of wrong-doing. But the rise of robo-calling is merely the tip of the data revolution that is raising deeper questions about what information our political parties actually know about voters, how they collect it, and what they do with it.

The recent US election cycle revealed the extent and sophistication of personal data mining and profiling by political campaigns as never before. The modern political consultant's arsenal includes smartphone applications for political canvassers. It boasts integrated platforms such as NationBuilder or Google's Political Campaign Toolkit that provide campaign Web sites, e-mail services, "social customer relationship management," and fundraising software. Targeted e-mail and texting campaigns match IP addresses with other data sets showing party affiliation, donation history, and socio-economic characteristics.

Campaigns now extensively use both "robo-calling" and "robo-texting." And no political strategy is complete without the use of social media to plan campaigns, target likely voters and donors, and measure the impact of policies and advertising on engagement.

Some of these data are gathered from the conscious activities of individuals. Others are gleaned surreptitiously from the digital trails that people leave through their various online activities. Reports suggest that there were no fewer than 76 different tracking programs on barackobama.com. The capture of personal data by political parties is no longer selfgenerated, obvious or consensual.

Surveillance during Canadian elections has been less extensive and intrusive - so far. Canadian parties and candidates have a minute fraction of the resources that are available to their American counterparts to fund the same degree of data collection. Nor do they have the same ease of opportunity to gather it. In the US, parties play a central role in registering voters for both primary and general elections.

But Canadian political consultants are always drawing lessons from south of the border, and it is not unusual for the latest campaign techniques to filter north. Furthermore, these new integrated campaign technologies can be easy to use, and cost far less than the more traditional and labour-intensive methods of acquiring information by going door-to-door.

The 2011 robo-call scandal was not the first time that privacy issues involving Canadian political parties have surfaced. A string of incidents over the last decade raises troubling, if subtly different, issues about the ways that parties and politicians use personal data for political purposes.

In 2006, Conservative Party MP Cheryl Gallant sent birthday cards to her constituents using data from passport applications, an incident that was later investigated by the Office of the Ethics Commissioner. The same year, the RCMP found lists of voter names and addresses in the office of a Toronto cell of the Tamil Tigers, a group classified as a terrorist organization. In October 2007, the Prime Minister's Office sent Rosh Hashanah cards to supporters with Jewish sounding names, many of whom were unsettled and leftwondering how such a list could be compiled.

During the 2011 election, a Conservative candidate from Winnipeg mistakenly sent a misdirected e-mail containing the names, address, phone numbers and e-mails of 6,000 of her constituents to a local environmental activist during the 2011 federal election. …

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