Bill 20 Could Weaponize Voter Data in B.C.

Privacy matters to me and it probably matters to you. As my friends and family know, I don't answer my phone. It's not that I'm anti-social: I just prefer to let the calls go straight to voicemail, which lets me weed out the more obvious spam. 

It's a practice that has served me well, particularly around election time when my phone -- like those of many other Canadians -- rings steadily. 

In the run-up to the 2011 federal election, I noticed I was getting a lot of calls from a 450 number... which I thought odd, as 450 is a Montreal area code and I was living here in Vancouver. No voicemail was ever left and I assumed it was a political party trolling for donations. 

I eventually called back to find out which one, only to hear a bizarre voicemail for a Pierre Poutine... which I thought tacky, but at least it wasn't a political party.

Or so I thought.

By now the Pierre Poutine / robocall scandal is a well-known and troubling event in Canadian politics, but perhaps not sufficiently well understood among Canadians in general. It is a good example of how political parties can develop voter suppression tactics once they have "marked" those most likely to support their opponents. And make no mistake: for many operatives, such tactics are every bit as important as mobilizing their own supporters.

This is why section 6 of Bill 20 -- the B.C. government's Election Amendment Act -- has to go. It is being frog-marched through committee over the protests of the privacy commissioner and with no public consultation. And it has the potential to weaponize data profiling by political parties and candidates across British Columbia.

Section 6 gives political parties, riding associations and even individual candidates the right to request the turnout record of registered voters from across the province. If you are eligible to vote, they will know whether or not you did.

Right now, the only political party calling for the removal of Section 6 is the B.C. Greens, although we are in good company with the watchdog group Integrity BC and the privacy commissioner. 

We want it out, for the very simple reason that if we are going to build a 21st century society here in British Columbia, we need to start by updating our understanding of citizens' rights. Data privacy has to be foremost among these new concerns. One could easily argue that on a daily basis, far more British Columbians are impacted by Facebook's policies than by any potential pipeline. 

Naturally, others don't see it that way. 

Bill Tieleman, who led the charge against electoral reform in British Columbia in 2009, recently declaimed our position, hauling out the tired excuse that political parties won't know how you voted, just that you voted so where's the harm?

But Tieleman is a smart man and he knows exactly how valuable meta-data can be -- and how problematic. If passed, Bill 20 will provide an essential data point in an otherwise incomplete profile: once political operatives know this information, the puzzle of the individual voter is much more complete. They can then target you for more frequent fundraising, more aggressive robocalls or outright suppression of your vote. And they will.

So while Bill Tieleman makes the point that operatives can theoretically build such profiles via inside and outside scrutineering, he neglects to mention that this is a labour-intensive, flawed and somewhat expensive process, the costs of which are borne by the parties and their volunteers. 

Bill 20 eliminates all of these problems for the political party, while absolutely increasing the burden for the household besieged by unwanted dinner-time phone calls.

Looking ahead, we need to start demanding new policies that do more to protect ordinary people's privacy. We can still fix this bill, but only if the people of British Columbia are made aware of its overreach and what that will mean to them personally. 

As we saw with the federal Bill C-51, people are pretty good at recognizing a stinker once they know all of the facts. 

We need to start rebuilding trust in the political process and we can take a small step right here. Andrew Weaver, the deputy leader of the B.C. Green Party has started a petition to remove Section 6. If this concerns you, sign on and circulate it to your friends. If we move quickly, we can make a better B.C., today.

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