Saturday, April 28, 2018

Wait, those terms of use actually mean something?

Yes, they do

The Cambridge Analytica issue has once again raised questions about how online data is collected and used. But it’s nothing new – not for advertising or marketing, and not for political parties.

Ever since the installation of private voting booths, political parties have been seeking ways to predict voters’ votes. No longer could a party just listen to your vote voiced orally and publicly – it actually had to develop methods to figure out if, when, and how you were voting.

Parties don’t literally have access to a list of how you voted (unless, of course, you tell them), so they need to rely on demographics, analytics, and statistics to figure out how you might vote so they can treat you accordingly.

Using data to predict this is nothing new or nefarious. Shopping for Votes, Get out the Vote!, and The Victory Lab are just a few books about how political parties try to get feedback on what’s important to you and whether you’ll support their party.

It’s a fact of life for all major political parties. Glen McGregor wrote about how the NDP and Liberals were playing catch-up to the Conservatives’ databases leading up to the 2015 election. Obama’s 2008 campaign was social media and data driven; his 2012 campaign even more so. Googling “Obama campaign micro targeting” returns 417,000 results about how the campaign used several forms of data to learn everything they possibly could about voters. The Obama campaign:

“established a huge Analytics group that comprised of behavioral scientists, data technologists and mathematicians. They worked tirelessly to gather and interpret data to inform every part of the campaign. They built up a voter file that included voter history, demographic profiles, but also collected numerous other data points around interests … for example, did they give to charitable organizations or which magazines did they read to help them better understand who they were and better identify the group of 'persuadables' to target.”

The Liberals’ 2015 campaign hired a number of Obama’s data experts, and we know how that turned out.

How do political parties get this data? Through publicly-available sources, you give it to them.

There are the obvious ways parties attempt to contact you and/or garner your attention: they knock on your door asking to consider voting for their party; they phone you asking what you think about the day’s issues facing the country; they email you urgently telling you the country will fall apart unless you give a small donation; and, yes, they use social media to make the same predictions.

That’s where the Cambridge Analytica story comes in. While there are legitimate legal and privacy questions to be answered (was the initial data acquired or used illegally, how should our data be acquired and used, should there be government oversight, and so on), it is not surprising that parties collect this information in the first place.

How does it happen?

Elections Canada provides all federal political parties with the National Register of Electors annually. This register is updated, in part, through tax returns filed with the Canada Revenue Agency.

Canada’s three major federal parties have privacy policies that state how they will handle personal information. (All three parties’ policies apply to personal information, which they define as being about an identifiable individual. In other words, it does not apply to information that does not identify an individual.)


We obtain the information that you choose to give us. You may do so in a variety of ways including:

·         When you visit our website for the purpose of becoming involved with the party as a member, volunteer or donor
·         When you subscribe to our communications
·         If you register at an event or at a Party convention
·         If you complete a registration or donation form either electronically or on paper
·         If you complete any other form on a Liberal website, including online petitions.
·         It is also possible that your information could be provided to us by a volunteer or friend who thinks you would be interested in getting involved with the Liberal Party.

The information that we collect may include:

·         Contact and identification information, such as your name, address, telephone numbers, e-mail address and social media contacts.
·         Donation information such as date and amount of your donation.
·         Financial information that we need to process your donation e.g. payment methods and preferences, billing and banking information (e.g. credit card number and expiry date).

… Given that the Liberal Party is a national organization, personal information may be shared internally, for instance between the Party and its provincial and territorial boards as well as electoral district associations (riding associations). In addition, we may engage third party providers to perform tasks on our behalf such as processing your donation, making phone calls and providing technical services to our website. When information is shared with third parties for these purposes, we include privacy protective clauses in written contracts to help safeguard personal information.”

“Elections Canada provides all political parties with a list of electors, including names and postal addresses. We collect other information from publicly available data.

We collect personal information from donors and members when they contribute to our Party or purchase a membership. You may also choose to provide us with personal information on a voluntary basis, such as when registering for an event or signing a petition. We are required by law to keep records of donors for tax purposes.

If you submit your e-mail address and/or personal information through our website, you consent to being added to our e-mail list. You may unsubscribe from our e-mail list at any time using the link provided in each email message, or by clicking here.”

“We collect the personal information that you choose to provide to us when you become a donor, a member, when you voluntarily subscribe to our communications, when you register for an event or sign a petition either in person or online, or when you complete any of the forms on If you submit your email address and/or personal information through, you consent to being added to our email and/or contact list.

… We use your personal information to communicate with you about the NDP, to provide you with news and information about the NDP and our activities, and to contact you about your past and future donations and membership.

… We may engage third parties to provide us with services from time-to-time, such as hosting servers and websites, processing online donations, or providing technical or communications services. When information is shared with third parties for these purposes, we ensure that your personal information is rigorously protected by including privacy safeguards in all our contracts, including stringent confidentiality and non-disclosure provisions.”

Each of the parties has privacy policies that outline how personal data is used. They are publicly available for all to see and read. They’re the terms of use for communicating with a political party.

The services we all know and love have their terms of use too – you know, the ones you clicked through when you were registering for your Facebook or Google account? It turns out they actually mean something.

Facebook outlines what they collect, how they use it, and how it’s shared. Included in their policy is this statement:

“Apps, websites and third-party integrations on or using our Services.

When you use third-party apps, websites or other services that use, or are integrated with, our Services, they may receive information about what you post or share. For example, when you play a game with your Facebook friends or use the Facebook Comment or Share button on a website, the game developer or website may get information about your activities in the game or receive a comment or link that you share from their website on Facebook. In addition, when you download or use such third-party services, they can access your Public Profile, which includes your username or user ID, your age range and country/language, your list of friends, as well as any information that you share with them. Information collected by these apps, websites or integrated services is subject to their own terms and policies.”

Google also has a privacy policy that outlines how they collect, use, and share information. Included in that policy is this statement:

“Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection.

We may combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services – for example to make it easier to share things with people you know. Depending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google.”

And Google may:

“… share non-personally identifiable information publicly and with our partners – like publishers, advertisers or connected sites. For example, we may share information publicly to show trends about the general use of our services.”

Again, these are all terms we agree to as a condition of using their services. Political parties – whether they’re referred to as partners, affiliates, marketers, or some other term – use the data collected under these policies in order to determine your political priorities and whether you might support them.

“Big data” is how we receive targeted ads. It’s how Amazon knows you were recently looking for a new comforter and offers you a discount. It’s how a store once famously predicted a woman was pregnant based on her purchases before even she knew.

Anyone with a Facebook page can use Ad Manager to target their audience. Have a dog walking business and want to target everyone within a 5 mile radius of your business who liked a dog-related Facebook page? No problem. It’s not surprising that parties use the same tools to glean information on how you might vote.

If we’re asking questions about how online data is being used, collected, and stored, we should first ask ourselves the obvious question: are they just using the data we gave them?