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March 6, 2011

Privacy for Politicians on Social Media

The NDP has been taking a beating in the social media and on editorial pages over its requirement that leadership candidates make their social media passwords available so a third party, under a confidentiality agreement, can determine whether anything that is potentially embarrassing can be found. Four candidates complied, but Nicholas Simons refused and has been doing the talk show circuit on the issue. Hearing the news, BC's privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, initiated an investigation. I expect the party will back down and both it and Simons will be weaker for it. Running against one's party is an interesting tactic for a leadership candidate, but some think it worked for Christy Clark.

The same people who are busy roasting the NDP over the privacy issue would likely be the first to criticize the party if troublesome information were later to emerge on a candidate who passed the party's screening. This is a lose-lose situation that is being exploited by people who would never vote NDP and who are delighted to use Simons to criticize the party. In fairness, critics of the NDP are not alone. The Globe and Mail quoted leadership hopeful John Horgan saying the party's password policy is excessive and he supports Simons. The story also reported that Mike Farnworth would like to see the policy reviewed.

One of the most useful contributions to the social media password debate has come from Dave Teixeira, recently social media advisor to Christy Clark. On his blog, Teixeira wrote: "I certainly agree that becoming a candidate for a Party is a choice, in fact, even a privilege to be accepted. As such, certain vetting such as criminal record, banking, taxes, group affiliations, etc are required. That said, a financial check does not include giving up the PIN numbers for your bank cards." He went on to mention old social media sites that political parties might not think of when checking candidates.

An important part of the issue appears to be whether access to passwords is necessary for an auditor to check the contents of a social media account. My understanding is that a difference between having passwords compared to being a "friend" or "follower" is whether supposedly private messages can be read. Any user would have to be a fool to send confidential information through social media, let alone not delete any that is received. Another possibility is access to embarrassing photos. Not all friends have access to all photos so there may be an argument that parties need whatever level of access is required to check to that depth on a candidate's page or site. While the privacy issue can become emotional, the essence of this dispute may center on whether access to passwords is technically necessary for parties to do due diligence when they vet candidates.

CTV quoted the privacy commissioner saying: "They want to make sure that there's not embarrassing information out there, I can understand the purpose, but maybe there are other ways that they can meet that purpose without requiring the credentials of somebody's personal social networking site." According to CTV, she went on to suggest an alternative is educating candidates "about what kind of social media activity is appropriate, and how certain actions can actually hurt your reputation." Nice suggestion, but I can't think of any political party that would base its screening on the hope that candidates understood the risks of social media. I trust Denham's report will be sufficiently practical so as to be used as a guide for political parties.

It will be interesting to see how Simons' concerns play out in his riding, Powell River - Sunshine Coast, in the next election. I can't help but think that many of those rushing to support Simons on his password issue, will be asking what he had to hide. I trust him when he says nothing, but he will need to convince a lot of voters.

Simons and I discussed these issues with Sean Leslie on CKNW on Sunday afternoon. For my segment click on CKNW audio vault for 3:00 PM on Sunday March 6th, and for Simons click on 5:00 PM. We are both on immediately after the news.