Will Targeted Ads Determine Your Vote?

(Katarina Martins/ The McGill Policy Association)

(Katarina Martins/ The McGill Policy Association)

Even if you don’t regularly follow the news, you probably know by now that you’re being tracked on the Internet. Private companies like Google and Facebook collect your data and sell it to advertisers, who then target you with tailored ads that they think you’re most likely to click on. Often, we shrug this off as annoying but harmless, like when we’re searching for a pair of boots and then that same pair follows us across the Internet in the form of ads. But the use of targeted advertising for political campaigns has increased in the past few years and become more visible following the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the United States. With the Canadian federal elections coming up at the end of October, it’s worth examining whether targeted advertising may be silently influencing our political choices and putting our privacy at risk.

CBC News recently reported that 99, or almost one-third, of Canada’s MPs have trackers on their websites which can target visitors with specific ads. This means that anyone who visits an MP’s website will then be subject to political ads for that MP on the other websites that they visit and in their social media feeds. This includes people who visit the MP’s website for non-political reasons; they may be looking to ask questions about student loans, or hoping to apply for citizenship in Canada. Whatever the reason for visiting the MP’s page, they’ll be vulnerable to targeted advertising later on. 

In addition, The Globe and Mail recently reported that the federal parties are uploading the email addresses of voters to Facebook so that they can receive targeted political ads throughout their feeds. Using Facebook’s advertising system to match the email addresses with voters’ profiles, the parties can create a “custom audience” on Facebook that will receive ads in their newsfeeds from that party. Often the parties have obtained these addresses through knocking on doors or petitions, and voters are typically unaware that their information is going to be used in this way.

Aside from the concern that citizens are unknowingly being targeted by Canada’s elected officials and federal political parties, these practices raise questions about individual privacy. Canada has two major pieces of legislation which relate to privacy rights; one, the Privacy Act, allows people the right to access and collect the information that the government of Canada holds about them, while the other, The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), governs how private companies can collect, use and share personal information. However, as political parties are neither government agencies nor private businesses, they are generally seen as exempt from both laws. 

Citizens have no way of knowing how much of their information and data is being shared with private companies like Facebook (unless they send a request for their data to the respective parties). The MPs whose websites have trackers may not actually be aware of how much information they are letting tech companies obtain about their constituents. Furthermore, even if voters have consented in some way to having their data shared with Facebook, the information collected about them will most likely be used in an algorithm to predict which other Facebook users will likely be receptive to the same ads. In this way, the actions of Canada’s lawmakers can lead to potentially dangerous profiling and bias.

These practices aren’t limited to just one political party; the Liberals, the Conservatives and the NDP have all used custom audiences on Facebook to target voters with ads. If the parties were subject to Canada’s privacy laws, voters would have more control over their information. So far, the only attempt to change the parties’ exemption from these laws has been organized by Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie, who is pushing for both data governance regulations for political parties and a ban on online targeted advertising for elections. But until some changes are made, there’s a good chance you’ll be seeing a lot more political ads online in the run-up to this year’s federal elections.