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Appearance before the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs (LCJC) on Bill C-47, An Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 28, 2023

May 3, 2023

Ottawa, Ontario

Opening statement by Philippe Dufresne
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

(Check against delivery)

Good afternoon, Mr. Chair, Honourable Senators.

Thank you for the invitation to appear before you today on Bill C-47, an Act to implement certain provisions of the budget tabled in Parliament on March 28, 2023, and more specifically, Division 39 of that Bill which proposes amendments to the Canada Elections Act. I am accompanied by Jennifer Poirier, Senior Legal Counsel in my Office.

As Privacy Commissioner of Canada, my mandate is to protect and promote individuals’ privacy rights in the public and private sectors, and to ensure that organizations respect their privacy obligations. Currently, the Privacy Act governs how the federal government handles personal information, and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) governs how personal information is handled by the private sector. However, political parties are not currently covered under either the Privacy Act or PIPEDA.

In 2018, my Office appeared before the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) on Bill C-76, which proposed amendments to the Canada Elections Act requiring federal political parties to develop written privacy policies and to publish them online as a condition of official registration with Elections Canada. While this was a good first step toward greater transparency, at the time, my Office flagged that the proposed amendments to the Act did not include effective recourse, clear remedies, or provide for in-depth review of the privacy policies.

For over a decade, there have been calls to improve the data handling practices of political parties to ensure that the privacy rights of Canadian voters are properly protected.

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. In 2009, there were complaints to my Office and to Elections Canada about the use of automated pre-recorded phone messages during the election period, also known as “robo-calls”. In 2018, my Office investigated the use of personal information by Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ in connection with political campaigning, and in 2019, there was the intra-parliamentary International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy.

Each of these investigations and inquiries has demonstrated that privacy is a fundamental right because personal information is a core part of who we are as individuals, and respecting privacy rights is essential to our dignity and to the enjoyment of other fundamental freedoms, including our democratic rights. 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.

The proposed amendments to the Canada Elections Act in Bill C-47 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. Rather, the proposed changes would allow political parties and their affiliates to collect, use, retain, disclose, and dispose of personal information in accordance with the party’s 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 that provides meaningful standards and independent oversight to protect and promote electors’ fundamental right to privacy.

Political parties should be subject to specific privacy rules that are substantially similar to the requirements that are set out for the public and private sectors in the Privacy Act and PIPEDA, while at the same time being adapted to the unique role played by political parties in the democratic process. In other words, privacy requirements that are grounded in legislation, that conform with internationally recognized privacy principles, and that include recourse to an independent third party with authority to verify and enforce compliance and provide remedies in case of a breach.

As the Agent of Parliament mandated to protect and promote privacy, and given my Office’s established knowledge and expertise on these issues in both the public and private sectors, I believe that my Office has a role to play in that regard. Another benefit of involving my Office is that it will reassure Canadians that their privacy is being properly considered and protected, which ultimately builds trust in our democratic institutions.

With that, I would be happy to answer any questions.

Thank you.

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