Monday, October 01, 2012

Political parties should be included in privacy laws; it'll never happen

The editorial in today's Halifax Chronicle Herald calls upon the government to include political parties within the protections of privacy laws. While it's a good idea, I can't see this happening ... it would require the politicians to agree that their hands should be tied.

PROTECTING PRIVACY: Challenges growing | The Chronicle HeraldPROTECTING Canadians’ privacy in a digital universe is a growing challenge.

Just how big that challenge has become was reflected in recent stories that underline the different ways Canadians’ personal information is not as secure as it should be.

The outcry after Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s MP office emailed thousands of Canadians on Sept. 14, to boast about government efforts to protect gay refugees, focused on a simple question: How did the politician get those addresses?

Turns out Mr. Kenney’s office captured email addresses from letters that had been automatically sent to him whenever someone had signed a 2011 online petition protesting the deportation of a gay artist from Nicaragua.

Despite the widespread concern over what had happened, however, federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart’s office last week said that, based on what was known, they lacked jurisdiction.

Which points to an ongoing, glaring weakness in Canada’s laws protecting personal information. Though they collect vast amounts of personal data about voters, political parties in Canada are not, for the most part, bound by federal privacy legislation.

A study commissioned by Ms. Stoddart’s office and released last March found that Canada was one of just a few democratic countries lacking such protection. A poll done for the privacy commissioner’s office two years ago showed 92 per cent of Canadians wanted privacy laws to also cover political parties.

Earlier this month, Elections Canada’s chief electoral officer, Marc Mayrand, said the agency, in the wake of the robocalls scandal last spring, was examining possible regulations to control the huge databanks on voters held by political parties. It’s unclear, however, how comprehensive such regulations could be.

Meanwhile, Ms. Stoddart last week also issued a warning to 11 large commercial websites in Canada that were sharing consumers’ personal data without permission.

It’s time the federal government put enough “teeth” in Canada’s privacy laws to make offenders respect their “bite” — and it’s past time the privacy commissioner was given the power to bring political parties to heel, too.

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