Robocalls highlight lack of safeguards

They are naughty-or-nice lists so detailed they rival anything Santa could compile.

OTTAWA — They are naughty-or-nice lists so detailed they rival anything Santa could compile.

Except the voter information data collected by political parties is just like St. Nick’s — secret.

An investigation launched into misleading and harassing automatic phone calls made during the last federal election highlights the hijinks parties can get up to using the data they collect on voters.

The investigation was launched because of complaints to Elections Canada.

But beyond making the complaint, the people who find themselves on the end of puzzling political phone calls have little recourse except to hang up the phone.

Political parties are exempt from the do-not-call list regime and unlike private businesses or government agencies who collect volumes of information on citizens, they aren’t subject to privacy laws either.

That means there are few restraints on how they can use the personal data they gather.

It’s a growing policy concern, privacy and technology law experts say.

While political parties have compiled data on voters for decades, the public’s attitude is changing, said Kathleen Greenaway, a professor at the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.

People are becoming more sensitive to how their personal information gets used, she said.

“I think we’re at a real influxion point in the sense of what we’re prepared to put up with for political campaigns,” she said.

“Technology is the visible symptom but it’s really more a question about how do we want our politics to run.”

The issue has come back onto the privacy commissioner’s radar after being on the back burner for years.

Jennifer Stoddart was expected to complete a report on the use of voters’ personal information by political parties in 2009, but it was never carried out.

At the time, Stoddart expressed concern over the “very sophisticated information machine” that powers U.S. politics and said she feared it was coming to Canada.

“It gives you a lot of profiling of individual voters that correlates their political affiliations with many other things,” said Stoddart.

“I think this would be regrettable if Canadians’ political opinions then were individually tracked that way.”

A spokesperson for Stoddart says the study has since been resumed and the commissioner is consulting with experts, particularly academics, on the issue.

Political parties aren’t likely to be of much help. The data they collect are largely responsible for how they craft their campaigns and there’s no incentive for them to want to create a law that loosens their hold.

The issue highlights the tension between public and political policy. While the Conservatives are considered the best at voter data information gathering, they also cancelled the long-form census because they believed that information violated people’s privacy.

The Conservatives also recently launched an online surveillance bill that gives authorities much easier access to people’s Internet lives.

The basic data used by parties is sourced from Elections Canada via the National Register of Electors.

It provides the name and address of every voter and is used for communicating with them, soliciting contributions or recruiting party members.

An audit of privacy issues at Elections Canada in 2008-2009 raised concerns about how the agency was handling the data but also noted the problems don’t stop there.

“Lists distributed to political parties and candidates can be endlessly photocopied and circulated,” that study found.

In one 2006 case, the RCMP discovered lists of voter names and addresses at the offices of a Tamil Tiger cell, allegedly for use in identifying potential financial supporters. Canada classifies the group as a terrorist organization. It’s unknown how the list ended up there.

Anyone who has ever received an ethnic holiday card from the prime minister has a sense that party databases run far deeper than names and addresses.

Those curious about how much information a political party may have on them could be out of luck.

Since they aren’t subject to privacy laws, the parties don’t have to tell Canadians what information is in their database.

The Liberals say whatever information they do have on voters was given freely to the party, and that members and donors can request or amend their files. When sending out email blasts, the party also tells recipients how their email addresses ended up on file.

The Conservatives would only comment on the current Elections Canada investigation, saying they are fully co-operating.

The NDP did not indicate whether they would hand over someone’s file if it was requested.

“The information we have is confidential, we do not share it,” said Sally Housser, deputy national director of the party.

“We respect the privacy of Canadians.”

Housser said that it was the NDP who objected when, back in 2007, the House of Commons sought to amend the Election Act to require Elections Canada to provide voter birthdays to the parties, in addition to names and addresses.

That requirement was later removed from the bill by the Senate.

That same bill increased the penalty for misuse of personal information, to a maximum of $5,000, or one year imprisonment, or both.

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