Electronic tracking of voters is a thorny topic in a tight federal election race

·4 min read
<span class="caption">Voters should be aware of how their personal data is being collected and used by political parties.</span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)</span></span>
Voters should be aware of how their personal data is being collected and used by political parties. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

This federal election is a tight race that is driven, in part, by data. What happens to your information when you click on a party ad on social media, add your email address to a political party’s campaign, request a lawn sign, speak to a party representative by phone or speak to a door-to-door canvasser?

Quite possibly, your information is added to (or already in) a party database. This database may then be used to inform canvassers about your political interests and positions, inform party strategy, help parties decide where to send volunteers or to target political ads.

This data is valuable to parties. There are, however, potential risks for privacy and democratic engagement.

Collecting personal information

Does the knowledge that political parties are tracking you, and keeping your personal information in their databases, make you less likely to interact with them? That is the question our team set out to answer in August 2020, building on our past research.

Read more: How political party data collection may turn off voters

We conducted a survey of 1,000 Canadians to find out how likely they were to engage with political parties by speaking to them by phone, in person or on social media. We sought to find out whether knowing that parties may collect extensive personal information from the public affected electors’ willingness to engage. Because it is an online survey, our results are not representative of the overall Canadian population.

Thirty-two to 34 per cent of respondents said they were somewhat or very likely to engage with campaigns in person, by phone or on social media. However, when confronted with the extensive collection of personal information by political parties, we found that a small but statistically significant portion of participants became less likely to engage with parties on social media. This indicates that parties’ collection of data may deter electors from engaging with parties online.

We also found that participants who had higher awareness of the types of personal data that parties collect showed higher concern about such collection practices. As people become more aware of parties’ data collection, their level of concern also rises, which could affect their willingness to engage with political parties or potentially attitudes toward engagement.

There are lots of reasons people may be worried about parties’ collection of personal information, especially given that Canadian political parties are not subject to privacy law, except in British Columbia. They are, under the Canada Elections Act, required to have privacy policies, but privacy regulators have no oversight or enforcement role.

The biggest concerns that participants had about parties’ data collection were: hackers accessing party databases, parties sharing or selling electors’ personal information and potential data breaches.

More than 60 per cent of respondents were aware that political parties collect information such as electors’ names, address, phone number, age and gender. However, most were not aware of the broader variety of information that political parties collect. Some respondents knew that parties collect information about “whether I have voted in elections” (51 per cent) or email addresses (47 per cent).

Far fewer were aware that parties — as a 2019 investigation by the B.C. Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner revealed — may collect information about political views (30 per cent), ethnicity (27 per cent), income (23 per cent), online activities (21 per cent), occupation (20 per cent), social media ID (19 per cent) or religion (17 per cent).

privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien sits at a news conference making a hand gesture with Canadian flags in the background
In his 2018 annual report, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien proposed stringent measures necessary to protect the personal information of voters. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick )

Democracy and data

We asked respondents whether they considered political parties’ collection of personal information to be important for the democratic process. Only 28 per cent responded that the collection of personal information was extremely, very or moderately important for the democratic process. A large percentage said it was “not at all important,” of “low importance” or “slightly unimportant” — 45 per cent in total. This means that a large segment of participants are not convinced that parties’ data collection is necessary to democracy.

A majority of respondents did not accept that Canadian political parties should be allowed to collect information about electors without their consent. Even with respect to information that political parties and members of Parliament are statutorily entitled to receive (such as electors’ names and addresses), respondents indicated a reluctance to accept collection of this information without consent.

Considerations for political parties

Political parties should consider whether failure to subject themselves to privacy oversight may undermine electors’ willingness to engage. To protect electors’ willingness to interact with party personnel, federal privacy laws should be extended to apply to federal political parties.

The NDP and Liberal parties have explicitly stated that federal privacy law does not apply to them — and the privacy commissioner agrees, calling for the extension of privacy law to political parties. In the past, the NDP has publicly supported the idea that privacy law should apply to political parties, but none of the four main political parties have included a promise to extend federal privacy law to political parties in their election platforms.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Sara Bannerman, McMaster University; Elizabeth Dubois, L’Université d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa; Jenny Zhan, McMaster University; Julia Kalinina, McMaster University, and Nicole Goodman, Brock University.

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Sara Bannerman receives funding from the Canada Research Chairs program, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and McMaster University. She has previously received funding from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner's Contributions Program and the Digital Ecosystem Research Challenge. This survey discussed in this piece was funded under the Canada Research Chairs program.

Elizabeth Dubois receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada and previously from the Canadian Government through the Canada History Fund.

Nicole Goodman receives funding from Brock University, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and Mitacs. She is a Board Member at International IDEA.

Jenny Zhan and Julia Kalinina do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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