Politics has been slow to enter the digital age, but the threshold has been crossed. Data now reigns. And no wonder.
People donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t go out to public meetings much any more. Voting participation rates have plunged. Door-knocking is less and less effective as urbanites cocoon behind security systems. Posted mail is expensive to deliver while admail is considered blue box material. All-candidates events attract only the partisans. The days of the big political rally may well be over.
But, we have email. And weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re all data. Digital profiles of voters have become the new currency of political parties. Suddenly, with enough data on citizens, parties can gauge support, get out the vote, target volunteers, gain lawn sign locations, build relationships and raise all-important donations.
In the end, the guy with the best lists may well be the guy who moves into 24 Sussex. And right now, that guy would unquestionably be Stephen Harper.
Data mining has been a holy grail of the Conservative Party and its director of political operations, Doug Finley. But some are now asking, has it gone too far?
That was the question some Jewish Canadians had recently when they received an unsolicited Rosh Hashanah card from the prime minister of Canada. It was also the question some constituents of Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant asked when they received birthday cards from her Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a person they had not met.
The federal privacy commissioner has launched a preliminary investigation into how the PMÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mailing list of Jewish recipients was assembled. But the answer as to where this data came from is probably obvious to anyone whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s worked for a Conservative MP.
In 2004 the nascent CPC decided to invest in a state-of-the-art data management system with the ability to identify and track voters Ã¢â‚¬â€œ millions of them. Called CIMS, for Constituent Information Management System, its aim was to gain a profile on every Canadian of voting age Ã¢â‚¬â€œ their name, address, sex, voting preferences and any other available information.
My first exposure to this was a year later when I became a Conservative candidate and started knocking on doors. My party riding association was connected to CIMS Ã¢â‚¬â€œ in fact, it was mandatory. The Halton Conservatives paid $2,000 a year to the Conservative Party and, in return, were given access to a database of local residents, and expected to continue to gather data.
So, when I went to bang on doors in a neighbourhood, my team dug into CIMS, and printed out a walk list for the poll. It told me who lived in each house on each street, along with any known information on what party they support. Every name was followed by a bar code.
After talking to each person, I assessed their political leaning and marked it on my sheet. Back at the campaign office, teams of people keyed in the data while using bar code readers to match it up with votersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ names. Thus, on election day, we had the names of thousands of potential supporters to telephone or email, to ensure they voted.
Fair enough. A stellar campaign tool, which also provided a rolling poll to the Conservative party, which had unfettered access at any time to all local data. In fact, CIMS automatically updated a pie chart graph showing how much popular support the Con candidate had in the riding.
But CIMS does not stop there. Besides being a political party data base for voter identification and tracking supporters, it is also a constituency management tool. That means MPs offices routinely use it to load in data obtained during an MPÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s duties in representing the people of his or her riding.
After the January, 2006 election, my constituency staff was instructed by the Conservative Party to use CIMS on a daily basis, loading in information about constituents who were seeking help, or who contacted the office for any reason, be it to praise the member or rant. CIMS then provided a living database in which pre-loaded electoral profiles were supplemented by this daily stream of information which might identify the occupants of a specific house as seniors, Conservatives, or members of a certain faith.
It took only months for thousands of names to be added, or existing profiles expanded. It also did not take long for me to fully understand what I now clearly know Ã¢â‚¬â€œ this information was still being warehoused by the Conservative Party, which also constantly monitored and mined the data.
Within six months, we made the decision to employ a third-party contractor to set up an independent database that was completely secure to our office, and stopped loading new material into CIMS. As events transpired, this was a wise decision.
On the morning that I was ejected from the Conservative caucus, CIMS went dark, along with my staffÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s computers in the Hill and riding offices.
When I joined the Liberal caucus, I learned that party has a similar system, but with a key difference. The database management program thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s used to track constituents on a daily basis is divorced from the electoral program which only becomes active when a vote has been called. Data does not migrate, making it less effective as an ongoing partisan tool, but also giving protection to the voter who has approached his or her MP on a non-political issue.
So, how did the prime minister find out the names and addresses of scads of Jewish Canadians who might be friendlies? I am sure the privacy commissioner will inform us.
All politicians collect data. I am no exception. Every person who has emailed me in the past 30 months to express a political opinion has had their address logged. The list is then combed to separate the names of those who hate my guts. Those who made threats are dealt with as necessary. The remaining list has been used to distribute news releases or information on town hall meetings and coming political events. The program used for this process offers all recipients an auto-delete feature, allowing them to remove their names from the list with a single click. However, there are individuals who feel their data has been misused. They have received a personal apology and their data, of course, has been destroyed. No data has been mined from the almost 70,000 comments submitted to this blog.