With the country nine months away from a federal election, the privacy structure around Canadian political parties and how the government will monitor social media for possible manipulation of public opinion are in the spotlight:
–Ottawa announced Wednesday the creation of the Security and Intelligence Threats to Elections (SITE) Task Force to prevent covert, clandestine, or criminal activities from influencing or interfering with the electoral process.
Among its responsibilities the task force — not politicians — will decide whether to issue public warnings about suspicious activities. [More below]
–Also Wednesday, at a conference in Toronto one of Ontario’s assistant privacy commissioners said the fact that political parties don’t have to comply with a privacy law regarding the personal data they collect is unfortunate.
“We have a huge legislative gap,” David Goodis told the Canadian Institute’s annual Privacy and Data Security Compliance Forum.
British Columbia is the only jurisdiction in the country with a privacy law that covers the way political parties handle personal information, he said. A House of Commons committee recommended federal political parties be obliged to follow the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which has strict rules for the collection and protection of personal data.
But the Liberal government decided against that recommendation. Instead parties only have to publish privacy policies.
By comparison parties in countries in the European Union have to follow the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Under new changes to Canada’s Elections Act, political parties here do have to disclose their privacy policies to the chief electoral officer, including how they collect and use personal data collected from citizens. That’s encouraging, Goodis said. Having to comply with a privacy law would be better, he said.
However, while some political parties here say they fear complying with a privacy law might discourage party volunteers, Goodis said that hasn’t happened in B.C.
“It’s just odd in this political ecosystem that one giant piece of the puzzle is missing where regulators in Canada – other than BC – have no ability to reach into that part of the story,” he said.
In an interview he said that “in an electoral process there’s an information ecosystem and the data flows back and forth between private companies, political parties, social media platforms. And to say one essential part of that information ecosystem isn’t covered by privacy laws that are enforceable through independent oversight is a huge gap.”
The government’s creation of the SITE task force has two objectives:
–show Ottawa is taking seriously warnings by the country’s intelligence agencies that there is a possibility nation-states will target the October vote in the way elections in the U.S. in 2016 and French elections in 2017 — through hacking of political parties, leaks and injection of fake news on social media. (see also this 2017 report)
One caveat: The task force can only give public warnings after the election has been formally called.
As part of the strategy major departments under the task force — the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the government’s intelligence advisor; the RCMP; the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), which protects and monitors government networks; and Global Affairs Canada, which receives threat information from other countries in the G7 — will work together and share what they know.
In addition CSE will advise Elections Canada and political parties on potential threats, CSIS will give classified briefings to political parties on potential threats and a dedicated RCMP investigative team will continue to detect and disrupt attempted foreign interference and investigate possible criminal election-related acts.
— and to show that revelations of suspicious activities will be made by a non-partisan body of senior bureaucrats. One of the problems in the 2016 U.S. election was that President Barack Obama and FBI director James Comey hesitated making public statements on possible Russian interference, fearing they would be seen to be partisan.
Another facet of the strategy: Perhaps with an eye on the Commons committee report warning about disinformation on social media, the government will spend $7 million to urge Canadians to think critically cautious about their sources of news during elections.
Finally, the strategy includes Ottawa calling on social media and digital platforms to take unspecified “concrete actions” to help safeguard the election by promoting transparency, authenticity, and integrity on their platforms.
It isn’t clear if they will do a better job than they do now: Facebook, Google and Twitter have thousands of employees around the world looking for fake news and other material, and regularly announce they have taken down suspicious material and phony sites. “We know we have more work to do, which means continuing to ramp up our efforts in the months ahead,” Kevin Chan, Facebook Canada’s head of public policy said in a statement.
[This week the European Commission called on Facebook, Google, Twitter and others who signed a code of practice against disinformation to work harder. The commussion published its first reports from the companies on their progress.]
One thing platforms will have to deal with is the recently-updated Elections Act, which mandates them to keep a registry of who is paying for election-related ads.
At the privacy conference Goodis highlighted another well-known example of social media manipulation, the use by Cambridge Analytica of the data of millions of Facebook users to create profiles used to target ads in a number of political campaigns. The data was pulled from the profiles of 300,000 Facebook users who willingly participated in what they thought was a personality test. They didn’t realize the app also pulled in the profiles of their friends, which totalled 87 million people.
”The fear is data harvesting for psychological profiling by political parties is manipulating the outcome of elections and potentially undermining democracies,” Goodis said. However, he also said “it’s still not that easy to say exactly how effective is this psychological profiling is”
The federal privacy commissioner is expected to issue a report this year on the Canadian angle of the Cambridge Analytica mess.
[The full report of the House of Commons committee report “Democracy Under Threat” can be accessed here. The reports of the U.K. information commissioner into the use of data analytics in political campaigns, including Cambridge Analytica, can be accessed here.]