The Trudeau government is turning to its spy agency and high-tech cybersleuths to ensure the privacy rights of Canadians are being protected as revelations swirl about Facebook data being exploited for political gain.
And Scott Brison, the acting minister for democratic institutions, also said Tuesday he would be open to strengthening federal privacy laws even further to better defend those who share their information online.
Federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien, meanwhile, formally launched an investigation to determine whether any personal information of Canadians was affected by the alleged unauthorized access to Facebook user profiles.
Brison was responding to revelations by Canadian data expert Christopher Wylie, who is accusing data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica of improperly obtaining private data from Facebook users in order to help advance Donald Trump’s campaign efforts ahead of the U.S. election.
Policy-makers around the world are grappling with the implications following media reports that data collected by Facebook and other social-media companies is being harvested and used to influence elections.
Recent reports by The New York Times and The Observer of London say Trump’s 2016 campaign hired Cambridge Analytica, which crunched private information it inappropriately collected from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users.
Wylie, who worked for the federal Liberals about a decade ago, has said in media interviews that the company used the information to profile voters and has alleged the company took fake news to the next level. The company denies any wrongdoing.
Facebook’s alleged data seepage has created worries in Canada, where the country’s largest provinces are set to go to the polls this year and a federal election sits on the horizon for 2019.
“We’ve reached out as a department of democratic institutions to (the Communications Security Establishment) to ask them to do an analysis of these recent events and to consider other ways that we can further strengthen the protection of our democratic institutions,” Brison said.
“Social media platforms have a responsibility to protect the privacy and personal data of citizens, and to protect the integrity of our electoral system where they operate.”
Brison said he planned to meet with CSE and also the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the national domestic spy service, to consider the global environment and assess threats to the electoral system and the protection of personal information.
And while he said Canada already has strong privacy laws, Brison said he’d be open to making further changes if necessary.
The government has also contacted Facebook to find out if any Canadians were among those affected by the data breach and to call on the company to explain how it will ensure this kind of event doesn’t happen again, said a spokeswoman for Brison.
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said Monday that if information giants like Facebook have the potential to distort the outcome of elections, they need to be held to account. He added that Facebook has a legal international responsibility to protect users’ information from bad actors looking to use it for nefarious purposes.
“Facebook seems to have a very cavalier attitude towards the protection of private information,” Angus said.
“What’s come out of the allegations against Cambridge Analytica was the ability to subvert Facebook to use the stories, the chats that people have, to create the perfect propaganda machine.”
Angus said the time has come for the creation of a global framework to deal with social-media companies that hold vast stores of personal information — and he wants Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to raise the issue when Canada hosts the G7 summit in June.
Facebook seems to have a very cavalier attitude towards the protection of private information.Charlie Angus
During question period Tuesday, Trudeau said he intends to do that and, indeed, has already had many discussions in the past with his G7 counterparts about privacy issues and democratic concerns related to social-media companies.
The international uproar triggered earlier this week by Wylie had already motivated privacy watchdog Therrien to reach out to Facebook to determine whether the personal information of Canadians was affected and to offer to assist an investigation into the matter already launched by the U.K. information commissioner’s office.
On Tuesday, Therrien said he’s opened a formal investigation, which will focus on whether Canadians were affected and whether Facebook has complied with Canada’s federal private sector privacy law — the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act which requires meaningful, informed consent for the collection, use and disclosure of personal information.
In a statement, Therrien noted that political parties are not covered by privacy laws even though they collect large amounts of highly personal information about citizens, such as details on how they vote, their age, religious and cultural backgrounds. The laws are “in urgent need of reform,” he said, reiterating his oft-repeated call for stronger privacy protection.
Political parties in Canada have also used tools offered by Facebook to target advertisements to voters, however there’s no evidence of anything similar to the allegations around Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook says users willingly gave their data
Facebook has denied the data collection was a breach because people knowingly provided their information. The company has said a University of Cambridge psychology professor accessed the information after he requested it from users who gave their consent when they chose to sign up for his test via a Facebook app.
On Monday, Facebook said it hired a digital forensics firm to conduct a comprehensive audit of Cambridge Analytica to determine if the Facebook data the company collected still exists or if it’s been destroyed. Cambridge Analytica agreed to give the auditor complete access to its servers and systems, Facebook said.
Newspaper reports have said Facebook first learned of the breach more than two years ago, but didn’t disclose it until now.
Cambridge Analytica has “strongly denied” the allegations that it had improperly obtained Facebook data. It has also denied that the Facebook data was used by the Trump campaign.
The company has also insisted Wylie was a contractor, not a founder, as he has claimed. Wylie, a 28-year-old from British Columbia, left the firm in 2014.
Trump’s campaign has denied using the Cambridge Analytica’s data, saying it relied on the Republican National Committee for its information.