Liberal Survey On Electoral Reform To Be Probed After Privacy Concerns

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OTTAWA — Canada's privacy watchdog intends to look into the Trudeau government's new online survey on electoral reform after concerns have been raised about invasion of privacy.

Canadians must be willing to disclose detailed personal information if they want their views on electoral reform to be included in the results of the online questionnaire.

The MyDemocracy.ca survey does not ask respondents to reveal their names but it does ask them to disclose gender, age, highest level of education attained, occupational work area, combined household income, first language learned, level of interest in politics and current events, and whether they identify as a member of a specific minority group.

Respondents are also asked to provide their postal codes so that their region of residence can be determined — a request that's particularly raising eyebrows.

maryam monsef
Maryam Monsef speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 30. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

In many instances, supplying a postal code would be enough to identify the individual, according to Ottawa University technology law expert Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce law.

A spokeswoman for privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said Tuesday that his office can't comment because it hasn't yet looked into the survey in detail.

"I can tell you, however, that we plan to follow up to learn more about the survey," said Valerie Lawton.

Vox Pop Labs, the company which designed and is operating the MyDemocracy website for the federal government, says the personal information is needed to ensure that the results of the survey are representative of the Canadian population.

The survey advises respondents that they don't have to volunteer the personal information but adds that "not answering these questions will result in your input not being included as part of the overall results of the study."

"I just think it's inappropriate in the context of a government consultation to link disclosure of so much demographic information to participation in a consultation."

Geist said the survey is likely compliant with the Privacy Act but is nevertheless "inappropriate."

"I just think it's inappropriate in the context of a government consultation to link disclosure of so much demographic information to participation in a consultation," he said in an interview.

Geist questioned why an online consultation, intended to engage Canadians in the issue of electoral reform, is trying to ensure results are representative of the country's population as though it was a scientific poll.

"The problem is once you start drilling down into finer and finer detail and you're asking all these other pieces of information — including occupation, education and whether you're part of various different identifiable groups — the ability at that stage to begin to actually identify who this person is becomes that much more likely," he said.

"It's not clear to me why you would want to go there ... I do think there are potential privacy considerations here."

Demographic information optional: Monsef

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef dismissed privacy concerns Tuesday, telling the House of Commons that "providing demographic information is completely optional; it is not required to engage with MyDemocracy.ca."

"Responses will remain anonymous and any data collected will be protected by the federal Privacy Act."

She didn't mention that the views of those who refuse to divulge personal information will not be included in the results of the survey.

Privacy was just one concern raised about the survey one day after it was launched.

NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen questioned why people who are not eligible voters appear to be eligible to take part in the survey. He noted that the survey cautions those under the age of 16 to get the approval of a parent or guardian before answering the questions.

"Is there any adult supervision over this thing?"

One of the personal questions that asks respondents how often they vote, does provide an option of "not eligible to vote'' but does not appear to preclude such people from being part of the results.

"Is there any adult supervision over this thing?" Cullen said in an interview.

At least one professional pollster, meanwhile, derided the survey's attempt to profile respondents, based on their responses, as either "innovators, co-operators, guardians, pragmatists or challengers"

"I've seen ?Cosmopolitan quizzes that were better designed than #MyDemocracy's attempt at segmentation,'' Insight West's Mario Canseco tweeted.

"Sample size can be 10 million for all I care. Bad questionnaire on #MyDemocracy

In the Commons, opposition MPs continued to question why the survey doesn't ask respondents whether they favour a proportional voting voting system or whether they want a referendum to approve any change to the current first-past-the-post voting system — as recommended last week by an all-party committee.

"Sample size can be 10 million for all I care. Bad questionnaire on #MyDemocracy"

"I have a question for the minister, inspired by her own survey,'' said Cullen. "Does she believe seats in Parliament should be allocated based on popular vote or based on the outcome of rock, paper, scissors?''

Conservative democratic reform critic Scott Reid mocked the survey's attempt to profile respondents as "a guardian, a challenger, a co-operator, a fossil or a snowflake.''

"I found out I am a unicorn,'' he joked. "The shared values of unicorns include rainbows, sparkles and ranked ballots."

Reid asked Monsef to reveal the identities of the academics "who advised the Liberals to model their survey on the sorting hat at Hogwarts.''

Monsef said the government worked with "an advisory panel of prominent scholars in areas such as research design, survey methodology and electoral politics'' to develop the questionnaire.

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