Last month, it became known that about 50 million users of Facebook had their personal information secretly sliced and diced by a computer analytics firm for use by the campaign to elect Donald Trump president.
The revelation led to embarrassment for Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. It may lead to government regulation of Facebook and other Internet operations, all of which have fostered a culture that rules don’t apply to them.
Canadian politicians quickly grasped an offshoot of the story. It emerged that Chris Wylie, the whistleblower behind the Facebook revelations, ran a company that did $100,000 worth of business with the federal Liberals.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer used that tidbit to pose insinuating questions in Parliament. New Democrat MP Charlie Angus got a House of Commons committee to call on Wylie, and potentially a couple of senior Liberal staffers, to provide more information.
You can see why the circumstances would be candy for Opposition members. Put the Facebook-Cambridge Analytics affair beside the Liberal party name and shake the resulting association like a booga-booga stick. Scary, right?
What the Opposition members did not and will not say is that all the major political parties have secrets that should be exposed. The Liberals use any scraps of information they can gather about voters. So do the Conservatives. So do the New Democrats. Smaller parties will do the same if they can afford the costs.
Never mind a Commons committee trying to grill Chris Wylie and some Liberal staffers.
What ought to take place is a full public exploration of how political parties gather and use information about voters in Canada. What ought to take place after that is the establishment of ways to make their practices visible to everyone, permanently. And that’s exactly what won’t happen — as long as the parties control the discussion.
They all track and use information on voters in far greater depth than most people realize. It’s almost at the point where the secret ballot is more form than reality.
The days of asking if you’d like a lawn sign, or checking if you’ve ever donated money, or asking if a candidate can count on your support are long past. Every scrap of information is important in the era of data analytics.
Have you expressed interest in certain issues or even used certain words when an election team has knocked at your door? Where do you work? How old are you? Do you have kids? Are you a member of a certain ethnic or religious group? Do you have an obvious illness or disability? Those are only some basic matters of interest. And yes, if you say anything on social media, that may catch their interest too — if not personally, then in profiles of various voter groupings.
Profiling was already being done over a hundred years ago. It was simpler then. Whether you were a Catholic or a member of the Orange Lodge said plenty about your voting preferences. Now, people sort themselves out in more varied ways. Some are straightforward; some depend on computer analyses that unearth unusual but statistically reliable patterns.
The new techniques pose obvious dangers to personal privacy. Taken to their limits they can pose dangers to more than privacy, as people in places like Turkey and China have learned.
But finely grained analysis of voters produces hidden dangers in the other direction as well. It has started to affect how campaigns are run. Highly targeted election communications call into question the whole idea of whether campaigns are visible to the broad public. If some of your neighbours receive phone calls or brochures that you don’t, and those messages say things about which you are not aware, do you really know what the campaign is about?
University of Alberta political scientist Steve Patten has questioned whether databases and microtargeting of voters pose a threat to democracy. (He has a chapter on this in a book published last year, titled “Permanent Campaigning in Canada.”) A handful of other observers are making similar points; they include Newfoundland political scientist Alex Marland, whose 2016 book titled “Brand Command” is available in some libraries.
If the MPs expressing dire and theatrical concern about the government’s relationship to Chris Wylie were really interested in protecting voters, they would be studying these larger matters and doing so in public. If they don’t, then it’s an open question what all the parties know about you and what they are doing with the information.