Digital tools power parties' campaigns but privacy a question
A voter casts a ballot in the 2011 federal election in Toronto on May 2, 2011. (Chris Young / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
OTTAWA -- With the federal election campaign officially underway, hundreds of thousands of Canadians across the country are finding canvassers on their doorsteps, asking whom they will be voting for Oct. 21.
Many of those volunteers won't have the paper and clipboards of old. Instead, many canvassers for political parties and third-party groups will be using apps on their smartphones.
If you're part of Unifor, for example, you might be approached by fellow union member who is using an app developed by Organizer Inc., an American company that works with progressive organizations.
According to Katha Fortier, assistant to the president at the union and the person in charge of "member mobilization," the app helps the union organize its efforts and make sure its contact information is up to date.
At the doors, "We do want to have an opportunity to talk to them about the election, the importance of voting, and some of the positions of political parties that affect them," she said.
Unifor's campaign is strictly member-to-member, she said, adding the union is "extremely cautious" with the data it gathers.
Organizer Inc. said in an emailed statement it has worked with several Canadian groups in the past on voter-contact and get-out-the-vote tools, including the NDP and the Service Employees International Union.
The big political parties are also embracing canvassing apps and other uses of digital software. The NDP is using an app called Dandelion; in 2015 the Liberals used software called "MiniVAN" (the name derives from "Voter Activation Network") and the Conservatives an app called "CIMS to go," linked to their central "Constituent Information Management System."
The Conservative app this election allows top organizers to track door-knocking and see real-time stats, but the parties in general have not provided additional information on what tools they are using to gather and analyze voter data.
Brian Masse, a New Democrat running for re-election in Windsor West, Ont., was the only partisan voice to respond to a request for comment for this story. He confirmed the NDP is using the Dandelion app, though as of the start of the campaign, he had yet to try it out extensively.
"We're just starting to integrate it into the system, I'm an old-school kind of guy," Masse said.
"These are additional tools that will certainly save some time, reduce some paper and some wasted resources," he said, emphasizing that connecting face-to-face is still his priority.
Masse is on his seventh federal campaign, and he said the shift towards social-media use and digital technology has been useful for spreading political messages but comes with a duty to ensure data is safe.
None of the major parties responded to requests for comment on this issue, and they have traditionally been closed-mouthed about their digital tactics, according to Colin Bennett, a professor at the University of Victoria who studies privacy protection and "voter surveillance."
The lack of information from the parties themselves matters, Bennett noted, because unlike in many other countries, Canadian political parties are not subject to the same privacy rules as other organizations. And non-politicos are often unaware of just what is going on at their doorsteps and afterward, he said.
"I'm sure voters don't know" the extent of data gathering and analysis, he said.
"There's a question of how much those canvassers should be obliged to have a little disclaimer of 'Here's the information I'm taking,' " and where it goes afterward, Bennett said.
The data gathered by canvassers goes back to the campaign leadership, and, in some cases, to data-analytics firms contracted to help the parties sift through the data and make decisions about their priorities.
The Liberals, for instance, have contracted in the past with a company called Data Sciences Inc. that helps with digital tactics and support for the party's voter-contact database, called Liberalist.
Like the main political parties, third-party groups are also using an array of digital tools to get their messages out. For many, Facebook or Twitter advertisements form the bulk of their activity, but many are using other platforms.
Unifor's app, for example, fits with another digital platform it uses, provided by NationBuilder. NationBuilder is a software company that helps groups create both websites and the back-end tools to track contacts and try to draw potential supporters into deeper engagement.
NationBuilder is being used to host the website for the People's Party of Canada, and hosts the riding-association websites for the Conservative Party, and the Dandelion app used by the NDP is designed explicitly to work with NationBuilder.
NationBuilder is also the tool of choice for numerous third-party groups of all stripes, including likely big-spenders such as Canada Proud.
Toni Cowan-Brown, a vice-president at the company, said NationBuilder is meant to help political groups "take people on a journey" -- from mild curiosity to signing up for a newsletter to donating to volunteering.
Cowan-Brown emphasized that the company does not offer any data to its clients, it only provides the tools to analyze and organize the data they gather themselves. However, it does offer a service that links public social-media information to data the group has from other sources, which can be valuable in identifying supporters.
Bennett dubbed that mechanism "controversial," and Cowan-Brown said the company is currently deciding whether to maintain it, since it is no longer allowed in Europe due to new privacy laws there.
NationBuilder does have "robust" privacy mechanisms and consent disclaimers, Cowan-Brown said.
Like other digital platforms and software companies, NationBuilder has faced questions of what responsibility it has for the actions of those who use its service.
Data use has increasingly become a part of campaigning, and will likely reach new heights in this campaign. This poses challenges, Bennett argues, but there are benefits as well.
"These are not necessarily bad things," he said, since digital tools can help political parties more effectively reach votes and engage them in the election -- their role in the democratic process.
"It's a question of being open and transparent" about what happens with people's information, he said.