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October 28, 2017 4:34 am

Should political parties have inside information on whether you voted or not – Part 2 – Big data

Wednesday, April 29, 2015 @ 3:45 AM

By Peter Ewart

Big Data. What does it mean? What does it have to do with the issue of political parties getting records of whether you voted or not? (click here for Part 1 in this series) The term Big Data refers to the gathering together of huge amounts of “structured, semi-structured and unstructured data that has the potential to be mined for information” (1). This phenomenon has come about mainly because of the tremendous development of computing and data analysis, and the resulting volume, velocity and variety of information being gathered on everything under the sun, including and especially human beings.

This data on individual citizens is vacuumed up by corporations, commercial data brokers and governments from a bewildering variety of sources, including credit card purchases, travel information, web browsing histories, polling data, financial transactions, information-sensing devices and networks, subscriptions, surveys, health information, census data, Facebook and other communication software, vehicle purchases and registration, real estate records, and so on.

In one famous case back in 2010, an Austrian law student discovered that Facebook alone had gathered, unbeknownst to him, 1200 pages of personal information about him (2). Since then, of course, the velocity of information-gathering, not only from Facebook, but from all sources has increased exponentially.

Huge amounts of this often highly personal information is captured and put into complex sets of data and individual profiles without us even being aware or informed of it. This has evolved into a lucrative and fast-growing data broker industry which organizes and sells off this information to corporations, government, and, increasingly, political parties. “Voter intelligence” has become a big business.

For their part, political parties have had their own traditional ways of gathering personal information on voters. But, in recent years, this has now been pumped up to an extraordinary degree with commercial Big Data, resulting in what has been termed “data-driven election campaigns.” In the U.S., the success of the Obama campaign in 2011 was largely attributed to the use of Big Data, as was the recent BJP election success in India.

Canada is no different. For example, at the June 2011 Conservative Party of Canada Policy Convention, Senator Irving Gerstein praised the new way of conducting election campaigns. “The key to the success of our fundraising program,” he explained to delegates, “is our data-base and our ability to prospect new donors, to remain at the cutting edge of political fund-raising techniques in North America and to effectively use the database for both fund-raising and political purposes.”

He further went on to say that “there are roughly 40 Conservative members in the House of Commons who would not be there were it not for our party’s extremely effective use of its data-base.” This surprising result came about because the party used the database to intensely “microtarget” certain small, but key segments of voters, as well as other new and controversial techniques (these concepts will be discussed in a later column in this series).

While the Conservative Party led the pack in the 2011 election with its very effective “Constituent Information Management System”, it would be naïve to think that the other opposition parties in Parliament have not adopted, to a greater or lesser extent, similar Big Data methods and techniques. For example, the Liberal Party of Canada uses the “Liberalist” database system (based on the U.S. Democratic Party VAN database , while the NDP uses a customized system called “NDP Votes.”

Just what personal data on voters are the political parties in Parliament and the provincial legislatures amassing? Unfortunately, as a 2012 report (commissioned by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada) points out, “political parties and politicians [in Canada] have continually contended that their needs for personal information are special and have succeeded, over the years, in ensuring that they are not subject to the privacy protection rules that now apply to governmental and commercial organizations in Canada” (3).

As a result, the report concludes, it is “impossible to provide an accurate picture” of what information and data the parties are gathering, and what kind of personal profiles on voters they have built.

However, unlike the federal level and other provinces, British Columbia actually does have some limited privacy legislation in place that does apply to political parties, i.e., the Personal Information Protection Act. But it is precisely this existing legislation that the Bill being pushed through the provincial legislature seeks to undermine, by allowing political parties access, after an election, to voter participation records, i.e. of those voters who voted and did not vote.

Make no mistake – such hard information is pure gold to these parties, which they can add to their databases and use to conduct what are called “voter analytics”, including data mining, segmenting, microtargeting, massaging, and, as some argue, manipulating the electorate and pulling off virtual electoral coups.

However, if Big Data and its associated techniques could be compared to a brand new Aston-Martin or Lamborghini sports car streaking ahead, privacy protection in Canada might be compared to a horse and buggy eating dust. There is no way it is keeping up. Now, in BC, even the horse is being taken away.

What are some of the ways Big Data and “voter analytics” threaten personal privacy? How does its explosive, unregulated growth even threaten the very democratic process itself? These topics will be further discussed in Part 3 of this series.

Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: peter.ewart@shaw.ca  


(1) Rouse, Margaret. “Big data.” TechTarget. April 28, 2015.

(2) Solon, Olivia. “How much data did Facebook have on one man?” Wired Magazine. December 2012.

(3) Bennett, Colin J. & Robin M. Bayley. “Canadian federal political parties and personal privacy protection: a comparative analysis.” Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. March 28, 2012.


Thank you Peter for an interesting perspective on the proposed legislation.

Contrast this desire of the political machines to seek out information on the voting public with the fight for secrecy by the same political parties at all levels regarding their own decision making processes regarding key issues that have impact on the taxpayers and voters.

Currently we have examples of the federal government trying to keep information regarding Senate audits from the Mike Duffy trial, the provincial government withholding information from the public regarding the ongoing teachers’ court cases and at the civic level examples ranging from Vancouver’s leaders current court cases regarding land development processes to Prince George’s not so distant past cases involving Skakun and the senior police HR practices.

So in my simplistic analysis, the governments (and implicitly the political parties) seems to want to know more about the individual decision making processes of the each voter while removing more of their own decision making processes from the view of the voters who elected them.

So much for the secret ballot of the citizen and the open transparency of our democratic governance processes.

Need to fine anyone that does not vote like Australia does, at the federal elections level to start.

And the good people of Australia are so much more satisfied with their Federal government than we are with ours as a result, aren’t they?

Now that the Ontario Government has sold Ontario Hydro, Is the province of BC going to be next and sell off B.C. Hydro and other public Assets such as the Public School system.

Especially since Hydro has spent a lost of public money for upgrades and the public education system has been crippled by funding withdrawals and is become an autocracy under the sole supervision of the minister of education.


So, the political parties can mine our data, find out where all the income in our household comes from, how we donate, where we travel, how we spend, weather we have guns, 2 cars, 1 kid, etc etc etc. BUT that will not tell them how we vote, or even what we consider to be the biggest issues. It would still be guessing. Finding out that we vote (always!)can’t change that. If they call me, I’ll tell them we vote. It’s not a secret. While I don’t want this bill to pass, and it is a creepy thing to want, I still don’t see how it is of value in the way that these articles imply.
I too think we need to do something about people not voting. So few do now that it is hard to believe that Canadian politics really represents what the citizens want.

It may come down to one statement. It doesn’t matter who votes but who counts the votes that matters!

Having read your two articles, I was surprised at how unaware I was about the proposed legislation and even more surprised that ‘Scrutineers’ were collecting lists of those who voted. Naive as I apparently am, I discussed it with my spouse who had worked both federally and provincially with elections.

Okay, so this is standard practice. This in my honest opinion infringes on privacy rights. A scrutineer in the voting place is there to insure the election officials are doing their fully by:

Insuring voters are marked off the voter’s list.
That Voters do not get the opportunity to vote more than once.
Unregistered voters are being properly vetted at the poll.

Other than this they should be uninvolved. If I choose the seldom used ‘Refuse my ballot’ option, the scrutineers should not be recording that or have that information made available to them.

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