Conservative Targeted Mailer Puts Privacy in Spotlight

A piece of mail sent by the Conservative party targeting the Jewish community is raising a fresh round of concerns for privacy.

For some Canadian’s, this might be a case of deja-vu. University law professor, Michael Geist, received a Conservative mailer trying to win over his vote. While this isn’t exactly uncommon, the mailer appears to be targeted. Somewhere in the Conservative system, Geist’s household is labelled as Jewish. As a result, he received a mailer suggesting that the Conservative party is the biggest supporter of Israel.

There is, of course, one slight problem with this attempt to woo over his households vote: Geist has no idea how the party came to the decision that he and his family is Jewish. More from his post:

Regardless, there are three things I do know. First, this is not the first time this has happened as Jewish new year mailers were sent out years ago by the Conservatives. Second, there is a long history that tells us that lists of Jewish households is a bad idea. Third, successive governments – whether Liberal or Conservative – have declined to do anything about this, preferring that political parties operate with few privacy law restrictions or obligations. As a result, I am unable to file an access request with the party to identify how my family ended up on the list.

The political party loophole in Canadian privacy law has been identified as a problem for many years. PIPEDA, the private sector privacy law, only covers commercial activities, leaving political parties outside its scope. The Privacy Act, the public sector privacy law, applies solely to the federal government, which does not encompass political parties. To date, only British Columbia has adjusted its privacy law to cover political parties. Bill C-76, the electoral reform law, creates requirements for a privacy policy but little else. In fact, as the Privacy Commissioner of Canada notes in its guidance document they have no oversight role with respect to these new obligations.

The issue has attracted increasing attention in recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the realization that the combination of political parties, mass data collection, and no privacy laws creates significant risks for individual Canadians. Last December, the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics released a report titled Democracy Under Threat: Risks and Solutions in the Era of Disinformation and Data Monopoly.

Merely relying on published privacy policies isn’t good enough. As Liberal cabinet ministers tweet their disapproval of the Conservative flyer, a more meaningful response would be a commitment that this will be the last federal election in which Canada’s political parties are not subject to binding and enforceable privacy laws.

As Geist pointed out, this is far from the first time such issues have been brought up. In a 2007 story he linked to, such mailout’s have caused controversy in the past.

While there have been reluctance by successive Liberal and Conservative governments to close this privacy loophole that seemingly exempts political parties, the issue has made an appearance in at least one party platform. The Green Party vowed in their party platform to close such a loophole. You can read our shortened analysis here if you don’t like longer text.

While it wound up not being a huge issue that is discussed in major announcements or in media coverage, the issue hasn’t been ignored altogether this election. Still, larger political parties do have motivation to keep this out of the spotlight. This is, of course, because it represents a powerful tool to get an edge in election time. So, rather than looking out for what’s in the interest of Canadian’s, some parties would rather let sleeping dogs lie and just keep to the status quo. After all, it’s no big deal if Canadian’s pay the price for this privacy loophole.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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