Political parties and what they know: Q&A with Chris Wylie and Wendy Mesley on The Weekly

Political parties and what they know: Q&A with Chris Wylie and Wendy Mesley on The Weekly

Political parties know a lot more about voters than you might think and when they show up at your door to drum up support, it is likely not random.

The data politicians collect is used to predict how Canadians are likely to vote. For the Liberals and NDP, they use a number scale, while the Conservatives use a red-to-blue scale.

Knowing where we've been

But in addition to the Elections Canada voter file, consumer data, and online presence — information the parties have been collecting for years — knowing where someone has been is just as valuable. It's the latest technology, called geo-targeting and it allows politicians to follow you everywhere using a combination of data captured from apps on your phone, social media, and websites. Your location says a lot about you. Just knowing where you live can suggest how you might vote and where you go also conveys important information about your attitudes towards certain issues.

"They are targeting people that are in a very specific area and they're saying 'I want to buy impressions in that specific area,' so that can be effective," says Michael Edwards, who previously worked on Conservative Party campaigns and is now with Sussex Strategy Group. All of this information is very valuable for modern campaigns.

There is evidence former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and the conservative group CatholicVote used cellphone location data to target churchgoers in 2018. Outtakes from the documentary, The Brink, reveal Bannon saying "If your phone's ever been in a Catholic church, it's amazing, they got this data. Literally, they can tell who's been in a Catholic church and how frequently. And they got it triaged." And it is not only churches, anyone could be geo-targeted, whether they go to an abortion clinic, an AA meeting or a climate protest.

CBC News asked the federal political parties if they use geo-targeting technology. The Liberal party referred us to their privacy policy; the Conservatives told us they use "Facebook advertising, which can allow for some geo-targeting, and Snapchat which allows for some geo-fencing for filters." The Green Party said they use browser-based location services, but "don't bulk buy location data." The NDP and People's Party did not answer our questions.

'There are no rules'

Christopher Wylie is a former political party data analyst who worked for the Liberals about a decade ago. He later worked with Cambridge Analytica where he blew the whistle on their practices.

Andrew Harnik/Associated Press
Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

The CBC's Wendy Mesley spoke to him Sunday morning about how Canadian political parties might be using this technology.

Chris, years ago, you worked for the federal Liberals providing data advice. Sounds like this geo-targeting is the latest thing. What do you think of the latest use of technology in general?

CW: I've worked in a lot of elections and it can feel like you're fighting a battle. You get into a mindset of "we've got to win. If they're doing it, we're going to do it too." And you risk particularly in politics of a race to the bottom.

It comes down to how people engage with what are salient important issues facing the community. You look at what happens, for example, in the U.S., where all of a sudden people start exploiting technologies in ways that perhaps they wouldn't do if there were more rules in place.

You start to get all kinds of really problematic messaging bubbling up on people's phones where people don't understand where it came from and don't necessarily know whether it's real or not.

Beyond privacy, what should we be concerned about? Some data specialists have told us part of the concern is that you and I can be sent completely different messages, whereas in the past, you see an ad from a party and they'd have to take full responsibility for it.

CW: It's not even a privacy concern. When we think about what is the public forum and what is political discourse in a democracy, we often conceptualize an election with the sort of notion of the public square.

If I'm a candidate or have something to say, I go out and I speak my mind, people hear it and they all hear the same thing. They all know who I am and what I'm saying. If I say something that's not quite true or there's a different perspective, there's an opportunity for the community to comment and debate about that.

The difference now is that as a candidate, I'm now able to almost sort of disappear from the town square and I can go and whisper into every single voter's ear and I can whisper something different to each person. I don't even necessarily need to appear as if I'm a candidate. I can look like a news site, a friend, a random person, a professor.

All of a sudden you start to erode the really important part of a democracy which is the public forum, because we are privatizing political discourse.

Is technology just racing ahead of all the rules and regulations? Is Canada allowing the parties to have too much freedom?

CW: Yeah. I don't have faith the technology sector is going to do a good enough job ensuring transparency. They tend to do the bare minimum because, frankly, there's no incentive for them.

There's no rules and political parties will operate within the legal framework.

Neil Hall/EPA-EFE
Neil Hall/EPA-EFE

This is not to say the Liberal Party or the Conservative Party or any party is breaking the law. It's just that there are no laws to break in the first place.

So you've got a technology sector that doesn't really care and you've got a completely unregulated political system when it comes to the use of data, so I think that there is a discussion to be had about what are the boundaries that we want to put in place.

Can data actually win an election?

Completely. Elections are zero-sum games. That means that there's always one winner and a lot of losers. If you just get one more vote than the other person, you win that election.

The power of data is being able to be much more efficient with who you target and who you talk to and what you talk to them about. If you can gain that sort of very surgical efficiency, particularly in elections where you just need one more vote in order to win an election, yeah, absolutely, it can play a very significant role.

(Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)