OTTAWA — The federal privacy watchdog has opened a formal investigation into the Trudeau government's much-maligned online survey on electoral reform, which asks participants to disclose detailed personal information.
But privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien is not waiting to conclude the investigation before taking action to protect Canadians' privacy.
Therrien has provided preliminary recommendations to the government aimed at better protecting the privacy of people who participate in the MyDemocracy.ca survey, his spokeswoman, Valerie Lawton said Wednesday.
Lawton confirmed that Therrien's office will investigate a complaint about the survey and hopes to have the issue resolved as quickly as possible.
Daniel Therrien responds to a questions during a press conference in September. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
The survey runs to the end of the month.
A spokesman for Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef said the government "takes protecting Canadians' personal privacy very seriously" and will review Therrien's recommendations.
"We are confident the steps we are taking through MyDemocracy.ca are protecting personal privacy," John O'Leary said.
"Sharing demographic information is entirely voluntary and optional on MyDemocracy.ca. We look forward to working with the privacy commissioner and reviewing any recommendations the commissioner may make. Will continue to do all we can to protect privacy while empowering Canadians in this important conversation about electoral reform."
Monsef herself did not comment Wednesday on the privacy issue, but told the House of Commons that more than 250,000 individuals have so far participated in the survey, which she called a "new, innovative, digital" way to consult Canadians on the values they believe should underpin the voting system.
The survey has been widely ridiculed for not asking questions about any specific voting models.
"We are confident the steps we are taking through MyDemocracy.ca are protecting personal privacy."
The MyDemocracy site 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 some critics worried would be enough to identify individuals.
Initially, that policy advised respondents that they don't have to volunteer the personal information but that "not answering these questions will result in your input not being included as part of the overall results of the study."
It has since been updated to advise that the input of those who don't answer the personal questions won't be included as part of the weighted results of the survey but will be included in the aggregate results.
'Cookies' used to track users
The policy also advises that Vox Pop Labs, the company engaged by the government to conduct the survey, and its service providers, such as Google Analytics, use "cookies" to track users to enable them to understand website activity, improve the website and provide "better customer service."
The survey profiles respondents, based on their answers, as either "innovators, co-operators, guardians, pragmatists or challengers." And it gives participants the option of sharing their profile results on Facebook and Twitter.
"When you click on such a link, you will leave our service and go to another site. During this process, another entity may collect personal information from you."
Vox Pop CEO Clifton van der Linden said use of Google Analytics is "an industry standard and extremely common practice," used by most federal government websites, as well as The Canadian Press.
He said neither Google Analytics nor Facebook is able to access participants' responses to the survey questions.