Bob’s Weekly Report – Democracy at risk

BY BOB ZIMMER

Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies MP

“Without a doubt.”

Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies MP Bob Zimmer
Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies MP Bob Zimmer

That is the answer Jim Balsillie, Chair of the Council for Canadian Innovators, gave when I asked at a recent committee meeting whether Canada’s democracy is at risk if we don’t change our laws to address the potential misuse and manipulation of voters’ personal information.

His telling answer was on my mind when I travelled to Washington on July 16 to take part in an inter-parliamentary roundtable discussion about the misuse of our personal data and foreign influence in our democracy hosted by the Atlantic Council.

I was there as Chair of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, along with Vice-Chair Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, to provide a Canadian perspective on this global challenge and to discuss the interim report our committee recently tabled regarding the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica privacy breach.

Also in attendance were UK MPs Damian Collins and Ian Lucas, who we have been working closely with as their Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee investigates fake news and Brexit, US Senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, as well as representatives from Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Sweden, Czech Republic, and Italy. 

It was a unique opportunity for all of us to come together and show a united front against what is increasingly being seen as one of the biggest threats to Western democracy.

As I said when I spoke at the roundtable about our experiences in Canada, while our federal election system of paper ballots is still very secure, it is important that we continue to take steps to protect our electoral processes from the threat of foreign influence and third party manipulation.

This means further examining how “deep fake” technology (realistic fake video and audio), fake social media accounts and trollbots, and the misuse of personal databases, to name a few, can be used to manipulate voters. 

We have already seen foreign third parties try to influence the outcomes of major natural resource project decisions in British Columbia. We need to be ready for all possibilities when it comes to our democracy.

The 2019 federal election is just around the corner. If elections in other countries over the past few years are any indication, we need to be prepared for all possibilities.

As Canadians, it is important that we all make ourselves aware of what technological advances are out there and how they can be used to promote the spread of misinformation, to question what we see on social media, and to take steps to protect our personal data from misuse.  

I know all members of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics are deeply concerned about this issue.

Our interim report lays out recommendations which we believe will better protect the privacy of Canadians and in turn help to strengthen our electoral processes.

When we first began our study into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, we had no idea how many layers we would uncover, how deep this investigation would go or where it would take us. The more we investigated, the more it became clear that we were just scratching the surface. 

Our committee will continue to study how the use of technological advances and personal data can be used to try to manipulate voters and will provide the Government of Canada with further recommendations for dealing with this new global threat.

The health of our democracy depends on it.