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Political parties need strong privacy rules, independent oversight, commissioner says

The federal privacy commissioner says it would be a mistake to give political parties the ability to govern the way they manage Canadians’ personal information.

The federal privacy commissioner says it would be a mistake to give political parties the ability to govern the way they manage Canadians’ personal information.

Changes proposed in the latest Liberal budget would let parties collect, use, retain and dispose of data in accordance with their own policies.

Philippe Dufresne told a Senate committee Wednesday evening that parties should be subject to the same internationally recognized privacy principles that govern the private sector and government.

The federal Privacy Act applies to government and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act covers the private sector, but political parties do not fall under either law.

Dufresne said privacy is a fundamental right and Canadians deserve meaningful standards and independent oversight.

“Respecting privacy rights is essential to our dignity and to the enjoyment of other fundamental freedoms, including our democratic rights,” he said.

“This is especially true for the personal information about electors that is gathered by political parties, such as political views and voting intentions, because it is sensitive information.”

He told senators that for more than a decade, his office has dealt with complaints from voters about robocalls and other communication from political parties.

“As early as 2007, there were public concerns from donors and party members receiving unsolicited holiday cards that appeared to target aspects of their religious backgrounds,” he said.

He argued that the changes proposed by the Liberals don’t establish minimum requirements for handling that data.

Instead, parties would be allowed to develop and change their privacy policies at their discretion.

His office provided a set of 10 principles and best practices — including accountability and consent, limiting collection to what is necessary, and limiting disclosure and retention — to political parties several years ago, after working with Elections Canada.

“We received a complaint about some of those practices, and my predecessor found — and I agree — that currently legislation does not give us the jurisdiction to go into this investigation and to make this type of finding,” Dufresne said.

Dufresne said the privacy requirements should include recourse to an independent third party that could enforce compliance and deal with any breaches. That could be the federal privacy commissioner’s office or Elections Canada, he said.

Sen. Kim Pate said other witnesses had told the committee it likely could not suggest amendments to the legislation, which is part of the Budget Implementation Act, to make such changes.

Dufresne said his office had already suggested changes to existing laws to achieve the changes he is calling for.

“(Privacy) should not be sacrificed to innovation or efficiency, and in fact, it’s not an obstacle to any of those things. It’s not an obstacle to the public interest,” he said.

“In the context of democracy, it’s certainly essential that whatever regime is adopted, that it has to be tailored and responsive to the needs of political parties, who play a unique role in our democratic process.”