The head of Elections Canada won’t guarantee that Canada’s next election will be safe from online disinformation campaigns, but says he’s “confident” his agency can limit their influence.
Stéphane Perrault, Canada’s chief electoral officer, explained one of latest measures Elections Canada plans to use to protect the electoral process: “We are currently purchasing listening tools — and the purpose there is not to listen to particular conversations, and we’re not interested in who says what — but these are tools that (use) artificial intelligence (to gather) information about what’s being said about the electoral process” on social media, Perrault told the committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics.
“And we have keywords that we can use (to monitor) social media,” to allow Elections Canada to “respond quickly if there is disinformation … being put out there,” Perrault said.
The government posted an ad on its buy-and-sell procurement site for the “listening” software on Sept. 18. It finished accepting proposals on Tuesday.
“I’m quite optimistic about the integrity of the next election,” Perrault continued. “We can’t be overly confident and we have to be alert, and we are taking measures to deal with the challenges.”
The head of Elections Canada also said he’ll be meeting with federal parties to discuss best practices ahead of the election, and presented a hypothetical scenario they’ll discuss: “What happens if a party receives a tantalizing offer about hacked information about the adversary party? Are they going to jump on that offer? Or are they going to agree to not share it? Or who are they going to call, and how are we going to deal with these scenarios?” Perrault said.
He said Elections Canada has also met with the electoral agencies of several European countries to see how they’ve been dealing with attempts to use disinformation to influence elections. Perrault said Elections Canada will “absolutely” be watching and monitoring the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 6. It also meets with provincial electoral agencies several times a year to discuss problems they may be facing.
“We don’t control mis- and disinformation, but I am confident that we are taking the steps we need to address (them),” Perrault said.
Perrault was participating in the ethics committee’s study on the breach of users’ personal information by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.
Perrault has been critical of the lack of legislation governing how political parties manage their data. Nothing in the Liberals’ electoral-reform bill — which is currently making its way through the House of Commons, before possibly becoming law before the next election — addresses it, either.
He reiterated those concerns to the ethics committee, acknowledging it’s likely too late for significant changes to be made to how parties use, collect and disclose voters’ information before the next election.
“It is late in the electoral cycle. I realize now that the election is coming, but I don’t know any good reason why not to have that conversation (about privacy),” Perrault said.
Correction – Nov. 2, 2018: This article was edited from a previous version that incorrectly stated the date of the U.S. midterm elections as Nov. 9. In fact, the U.S. midterm elections will be on Nov. 6.
This article originally appeared in The Star