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Commons committee calls on Liberals to subject parties to privacy laws


OTTAWA — A committee of MPs is calling on the federal government to make political parties and players subject to federal privacy laws to prevent nefarious actors from manipulating Canadian elections.

Political parties are only bound by internal, voluntary policies — an issue the federal privacy commissioner has identified as a loophole in the law.

How parties use data has been the subject of scrutiny on Parliament Hill and in the U.K. and the U.S. in the wake of a Facebook data scandal where users' information may have been used without authorization and manipulated for political gain.

In a report released Tuesday, the House of Commons ethics and privacy committee called on the government to move quickly to regulate parties, political organizations and other players to force them to better disclose how they use personal information, including how they target Canadians with ads.

Requirements could include forcing political players to show who paid for an online ad and to authenticate their identity and showing users why they were targeted — similar to measures Facebook has already enacted.

The committee report says evidence heard during hearings to date has left MPs with "grave concerns" about the electoral system.

"In light of what the committee heard, it believes that Canadians would have greater confidence if they knew that their political parties were not exempt from privacy legislation," the report said.

"Any legislative amendment should obviously take the special activities of political parties into account so as not to entirely prevent the use of personal information, but rather to better regulate its collection and use and the transparency surrounding the management of such information."

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said the government was looking at ways to strengthen the reach of the privacy commissioner and updating federal privacy laws.

"We can't have a data-driven economy and we can't have the economic potential unleashed if we don't have the trust of Canadians," he said.

Nearly 87 million users, including 622,161 Canadians, had their information accessed by the U.K. firm Cambridge Analytica without authorization. The company allegedly used the information for political gain in the Brexit referendum, as well as in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

A Canadian company was implicated in the scandal.

Executives from B.C.-based AggregateIQ testified that they had done nothing wrong when the company helped with online advertising campaigns for groups pushing for the U.K. to leave the European Union. But the committee found the testimony from the two executives was "inconsistent, full of contradictions, and conflicts with the testimony of several other reliable witnesses," the report said.

Conservatives and New Democrats on the committee used harsher words targeting AggregateIQ chief executive Zack Massingham, who didn't appear for scheduled testimony earlier this month due to an unspecified health issue. 

The Tories and NDP want the House of Commons to exact some kind of parliamentary punishment for Massingham's failure to appear at the June 12 meeting.

"Allowing Mr. Massingham’s actions to stand unchallenged would set a lasting precedent that could undermine the ability of other members of Parliament and committees to gather witness testimony from witnesses on issues of national importance," the opposition parties wrote in their dissenting report.

In an emailed statement, the company's chief operating officer, Jeff Silvester, said the company provided "clear, consistent and honest answers to all of the questions" MPs on the committee posed. Silvester said he also voluntarily attended the most recent committee meeting to answer questions.

"AggregateIQ works in full compliance within all legal and regulatory requirements in all jurisdictions where it operates and has been co-operating fully with all of the applicable investigations," Silvester said.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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