The Liberal government’s attempt to create a national regime covering the collection of personal information by federal political parties has been dismissed by Canada’s privacy commissioner.

The brief proposals to amend the federal Elections Act — included in the proposed federal budget — “do not establish minimum privacy requirements for political parties to follow in their handling of personal information, or provide for independent oversight of their privacy practices,” Commissioner Philippe Dufresne told a Senate committee on Wednesday.

Federal Privacy Commissioner Philippe Dufresne before the Senate legal affairs committee May 3, 2023

“Rather the proposed changes would allow political parties and their affiliates to collect, use, retain and dispose of personal information in accordance with the parties’ own privacy policy, which they develop and revise at their own discretion.

“Given the importance of privacy and the sensitive nature of the information being collected, Canadians need and deserve a privacy regime for political parties that goes further than self-regulation and provides meaningful standards and independent oversight to protect electors’ fundamental right to privacy.”

Real privacy protection would require federal political parties to follow the principles of either the Privacy Act, which covers the federal government, or the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which covers much of the private sector, Dufresne said.

Instead, the proposed amendments are similar to the existing 2018 additions to the Elections Modernization Act, which only require political parties to have a privacy policy.

As a result, federal parties don’t have to follow a particular privacy standard, Dufresne said, nor are they obliged to have an independent mechanism to hear complaints that a party has violated its privacy policy.

Related content: Complaints about loophole in federal political parties’ privacy rules

The proposed Elections Act amendment says any registered party or eligible party, as well as any person or organization acting on the party’s behalf, including the party’s candidates, electoral district associations, officers, agents, employees, volunteers and representatives, may collect, use, disclose, retain and dispose of personal information in accordance with the party’s privacy policy.

The budget bill says the purpose of the proposed Elections Act change “is to provide for a national, uniform, exclusive and complete regime applicable to registered parties and eligible parties respecting their collection, use, disclosure, retention and disposal of personal information.”

Some observers think the proposed change to the Elections Act is to make clear that provincial privacy laws in B.C. and Quebec don’t apply to federal political parties.

A strict data collection and privacy standard should have to be met by political parties because “privacy is a fundamental right,” Dufresne said.

He noted that over the years there have been complaints by citizens, by donors, and party members of receiving unsolicited holiday cards “that appeared to target aspects of their religious backgrounds,” and of the use of automated pre-recorded phone messages to voters during an election. His office and the B.C. privacy commissioner also found in an investigation related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal that AggregateIQ Data Services didn’t get adequate consent for collecting and using data in some British Columbia political campaigns.

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