The Harper Index

Privacy concerns lurk about Conservatives' database practices

Fundraising guru behind party's organization has been linked to controversies with Mike Harris, Tom Long and charities.

The Garth Turner revelations raise questions about where the Conservatives get personal informationTORONTO, November 9, 2007: Stephen Harper's Conservatives are compiling and using detailed files of personal information about Canadians with data from public, semi-public, and possibly private sources. An undiscussed network of political operatives and corporate telemarketers have developed the ability to learn about individuals from diverse databases and correlate the information for political purposes.

Usually, this manifests itself through direct mail and telephone contact work carried out for election campaigns. In October, however, controversy erupted because of Rosh Hashanah [Jewish New Year] greeting cards sent by the Harper Conservatives to Jewish voters in Toronto and the refusal of the Conservatives to say how they identified which residents were Jewish.

Former Conservative-turned-Liberal MP Garth Turner revealed that the Conservatives require MPs to input constituency office information into a consolidated political database system called Constituent Information Management System or CIMS. This led to controversy over whether the Conservatives breach privacy laws with this practice. Since they are not a business, however, they probably do not.

Political work is based on list-building. All political parties work with consultants and invest heavily in database technology. Turner's charges, however, raise questions about how that work is done by the Conservatives.

The Conservatives have used their money and their connections with US Republicans to develop a wide lead over their competitors in the field of "data mining" and voter identification. They are unwilling to discuss whether they have crossed any ethical or legal lines in terms of privacy rights or data sources and totally guarded about their data systems, and the people behind them.

One of their main leaders, according to a Toronto fund-raising consultant who asked not be identified, is probably Michael Davis, CEO of the Responsive Marketing Group (RMG), a telemarketing corporation that raises money for many of Canada's biggest charities. The company has become dominant in its field by guaranteeing client charities that it will raise funds for them, even though what the charity actually receives may represent a small fraction of total revenues raised in the charity's name.

Key to RMG's corporate operations is its ability to build contact lists of its own. Where most telemarketers simply appeal to charities' donor lists on behalf of the charities, RMG has strictly-enforced contracts that make these lists their property for their own use. "They've created vast databases of people that will give to telephone appeals," says the consultant. "It's part of their contracts that they own those names. Most telemarketers don't have the right to the names they contact, but these guys do."

RMG builds information files on each donor - files that are available for use in subsequent campaigns.

Davis formerly worked with fundraising consultant Craig Copland, the founder or co-founder of at least six Canadian charities that routinely spend 70 percent or more of contributions on telemarketers and other expenses, according to a recent Toronto Star investigation. These charities "exaggerate their good deeds, or outright refuse to say what they do with your money." Copland works closely with the telemarketing corporation Xentel DM. "Copland finds Xentel new charity clients. Xentel pays him royalties for charities sent its way. He also served on Xentel's board of directors until the Star started asking questions," the paper reported. Davis' RMG works in similar fashion.

"With RMG and Xentel, they'll guarantee money, but in effect you turn over your charitable tax number to them," says the consultant. "They can hide it in various ways." He says says, "Davis is smart. Three years ago he severed his connection with Copland," who is now drawing public heat.

Davis is well known in the fund-raising profession for the work he has done for conservative causes. He has worked for anti-abortion and anti-gun control groups, and also the Ontario Conservative Party under Mike Harris, which got in trouble for reporting payments of more than half a million dollars to RMG for telephone canvassing as polling expenses.

"In 1999, the company was phoning people across the province using the permanent electoral register that the Tories also introduced," wrote Robert MacDermid of York University in a paper called Changing Electoral Politics in Ontario: The 1999 Provincial Election.

"Those calls probably began as something like an opinion poll: the caller may have even said that they were calling on behalf of a company with a research-like name and then proceeded through a few questions to a vote intention question. The telephone number called by the interviewer would have been matched to a name on the electoral register. When the voter indicated a voting preference, that information would have been entered automatically into the computer. The marketer could then pass over to the party a database with Tory supporters names, addresses and phone numbers to be handed on to the ridings for calling with a voting reminder on election day. While some of this must remain speculation, since a Tory spokesperson has denied it, the evidence in the party campaign filings strongly supports the argument that the money was used for phone canvassing... Any reputable pollster would be embarrassed to call this activity polling, since it does not begin from a random sample, nor does it guarantee respondents' anonymity or confidentiality."

RMG did membership work for the Tom Long campaign for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance party, which was later discredited for selling phony memberships.

The Toronto consultant believes RMG laid the foundation for the federal Conservatives' voter contact machine. "I think RMG has a database of pretty well everyone in Canada that has any right-wing leanings. They raise a ton of money."

In the 1980s, Davis was associated with a scandal concerning the Canadian Liver Foundation. He helped increase the charity's earnings "from $2 million to $11 or 12 million," recalls the consultant, "but it only netted [the charity] several thousand. RMG, which was then called something else, garnered all the money, and there was a big scandal. Subsequently they changed the name of the firm."

The Rosh Hashanah greeting card controversy and Garth Turner's charges raise important questions about privacy that the Harper Conservatives refuse to answer. Where does the Conservative Party of Canada get information? Is any of it from census or other government sources? What do they know about the lives of individual Canadians and how have they been using that knowledge?

Links and sources
  Charitable empire has high costs, Toronto Star, November 04, 2007
  Many Jews unsettled over Harper holiday greetings, The Ottawa Citizen, October 08, 2007
  Tory database draws ire, Canadian Privacy Law Blog, Saturday, October 20, 2007
  Changing Electoral Politics in Ontario: The 1999 Provincial Election, by Robert MacDermid

Posted: November 09, 2007

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