Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Privacy Czar Decries 'Gap' in Law for Political Parties Handling Personal Info

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Privacy Czar Decries 'Gap' in Law for Political Parties Handling Personal Info

Article excerpt

Privacy czar decries legal 'gap' for parties

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OTTAWA - The fact that political parties are excluded from federal laws on handling personal information -- such as social media data -- amounts to "an important gap" that could jeopardize the integrity of the electoral process, Canada's privacy czar says.

There should be a law governing the use of personal data by parties to prevent manipulation of the information to influence an election, privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said Thursday in an interview.

"From a privacy perspective, personal information is unregulated with respect to political parties, so that's clearly not a good thing," Therrien said.

Neither of the two federal privacy statutes -- one for government institutions, the other for private-sector organizations -- covers political parties.

"The absence of regulation facilitates the manipulation of information to influence elections in a way which I think is completely contrary to the public interest," Therrien told The Canadian Press.

Therrien's comments come as he begins investigating the alleged unauthorized use of some 50 million Facebook profiles -- possibly including those of Canadians -- by Cambridge Analytica, a firm accused of helping crunch data for Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

Therrien said his officials will meet Facebook representatives to determine whether the data of Canadian users was involved. If Canadian information was harvested, the commissioner's office will look at whether Facebook respected the federal privacy law covering private companies.

Facebook Canada has said it's strongly committed to protecting personal information and would answer any questions from Therrien.

This week's events have shown that weak privacy safeguards can have serious effects that go beyond the commercial realm, potentially distorting democracy, Therrien said. "It's a wake up call, frankly, if not a crisis in confidence."

Therrien wants other legislative changes to usher privacy laws into the era of big data and artificial intelligence, including new powers for his office to audit companies, make binding orders and levy fines.

To ensure a political campaign's success, all parties have long been heavily dependent on access to quality data about voters.

After news emerged about the Facebook breach, Scott Brison, the acting minister for democratic institutions, said he'd be open to strengthening federal privacy laws, although he did not specify whether any change could include applying privacy laws to political parties.

Either way, public concerns over the use of private Facebook data will likely force political parties to re-examine how they use data -- particularly as they prepare for the 2019 federal election.

Karl Belanger, the NDP's former national director, agrees Ottawa must broaden privacy laws to include political parties if it truly hopes to calm fears. …

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