Bob’s Weekly Report
In recently weeks the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics has continued its study of the Breach of Personal Information Involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.
As Chair of this committee, I have heard increasingly disturbing testimony from our witnesses about how our personal data can be used without our knowledge or consent to try to influence us.
For those who may not be familiar, our study into the Facebook data breach began after news broke that a company called Cambridge Analytica had allegedly used personal information taken from Facebook to create psychological profiles on tens of millions of Facebook users.
It is understood that they were allegedly able to get this information thanks to a so-called personality test app called “This is Your Digital Life” that was, in actuality, collecting the personal data of those who took the test and all of their Facebook friends, without their knowledge and even if they didn’t take the test themselves.
This has sparked debate and concern over the misuse of personal data and how we, as individuals and as lawmakers, can protect personal information in the digital age.
It has also led to investigations in multiple countries and many committees like ours are currently conducting studies into the issue, including in the United Kingdom where they are looking into how data is used to target information to people on social media.
My counterpart, UK MP Damian Collins, Chair of the Digital, Culture and Sport Select Committee, recently appeared before our committee to discuss the UK study and some of his own observations.
It is clear from his testimony that what is of concern to both of our committees is how third parties collect our personal information, how this information is used once they have it, and the lack of transparency behind this.
An example brought up by Mr. Collins is the issue of Facebook ads on users’ newsfeeds and questions over whether people understand why they are receiving a certain ad and who is behind them.
To quote Mr. Collins’ testimony: “You could receive many of these political messages that have been targeted at you based on – unbeknownst to you – your psychological profiling that’s been done of your interests and fears and concerns. You can’t stop receiving them. You may also not know who is sending them to you.”
In fact, an ad that looks like it’s coming from a concerned local community group may have actually been created by someone in St. Petersburg, Russia and targeted to you based on the data they have been able to scrap from your profile and you have no way of knowing.
Also worrying are stories like the one Mr. Collins highlighted in his testimony regarding an investigation done by Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom in which a Cambridge Analytica executive was allegedly filmed talking about hiring sex workers to compromise politicians in different countries to try to influence election campaign results.
We have also heard news reports about allegations surrounding the death of a Cambridge Analytica employee. Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, testified before the UK committee that he had heard rumours that his predecessor may have been poisoned in Kenya after “a deal went sour”.
The testimony our committee has heard so far has been troubling and we as a committee are growing increasingly concerned about how third parties can gain access to personal data and how this information can be used to try to influence Canadians.
First and foremost in my mind as I preside over these meetings is the fact that your personal information should be considered sacrosanct and we as a committee, and as lawmakers, should be doing everything we can to protect it from misuse.
I know this is an issue that all members of the committee believe is very important, especially in the lead up to the 2019 federal election.
That is why at a recent meeting I asked Jim Balsillie, Chair of the Council for Canadian Innovators, whether he believed Canada’s democracy is at risk if we don’t change our laws to deal with the alleged misuse and manipulation of voters’ personal information to influence elections.
His answer: “Without a doubt.”
Member of Parliament
Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies