Jim Balsillie, of the Council of Canadian Innovators, arrives to appear as a witness at a Commons privacy and ethics committee in Ottawa on Thursday, May 10, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Watchdog probes complaint about Canadian political parties’ data use

Centre for Digital Rights claims Liberals, Conservatives and NDP misused data and targeted ads

Canada’s competition watchdog is looking into a complaint about the data-harvesting practices of the main federal political parties.

In its complaint to the commissioner of competition, the Centre for Digital Rights flagged what it calls the large-scale misuse of big data and targeted digital advertising of the Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic parties.

The centre, established by businessman and philanthropist Jim Balsillie, released a letter Wednesday from the Competition Bureau saying it had begun an investigation of the complaint.

Information about prospective voters is helpful to political parties for everything from door-to-door canvassing to shaping platforms. In the age of algorithms and vast databases, there are new concerns about how parties use such information to track and target people.

The centre says the parties’ use of personal information undermines the trust of Canadian voters “in the marketplace of goods, services and ideas” and contravenes the prohibition on deceptive marketing in the Competition Act.

It argues that while a political party conducts “a different shade of business” from a company that sells regular products or services, it is not excluded from competition law, said Bill Hearn, a lawyer for the digital-rights centre.

The centre has also filed complaints with the federal privacy commissioner, the B.C. information and privacy commissioner, the federal telecommunications regulator and Canada’s elections commissioner. It awaits responses from those agencies.

The centre is pushing for revision of the federal privacy law covering the private sector to apply expressly to political parties, constituency associations, candidates and candidate nomination contestants.

READ MORE: Groups ready campaign to help young voters identify ‘fake news’ in election

Even now, the centre argues, the federal parties use and disclose the personal information they collect from Canadians for purposes a reasonable person would consider contrary to their respective privacy policies, a violation of the requirements under the privacy law that people give “meaningful consent” for what happens to their data.

The digital-rights centre will “go to the courts” if privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien decides he lacks authority to investigate the complaint, Hearn said in an interview. Therrien is not the ultimate arbiter of the jurisdictional question, he said — the courts are.

An internal analysis by the privacy commissioner found last year that the major political parties failed to ensure people gave valid consent to the collection and use of their personal information.

The Canadian Press

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