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Elections Canada suggests voter contact registry for 'bot' users on social media

Last Updated Mar 21, 2018 at 8:20 am EDT

A woman casts her vote for the federal election in a polling station on Toronto's Ward Island..THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

OTTAWA – A discussion paper prepared for Elections Canada suggests the use of “bots” on social media to spread disinformation, amplify political messages or disparage others could be monitored and regulated in the same way as automated phone messages during federal campaigns.

Since the robocall vote suppression scandal in the 2011 campaign — in which thousands of voters complained they’d received live and automated phone calls purportedly from Elections Canada officials who directed them to the wrong polling stations — anyone using a call service provider to contact voters is required to register with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Failure to comply is punishable by a fine of $1,500 up to $15,000.

One junior Conservative staffer was eventually found guilty of violating the Canada Elections Act for his part in the use of misleading robocalls in Guelph, Ont., during the 2011 campaign.

Since then, the potential to mislead voters has increased exponentially, thanks in part to the use of bots — software applications that spread automated messages like wildfire via the internet.

The discussion paper, prepared for Elections Canada last August and obtained through the Access to Information Act, suggests that a voter contact registry, similar to that in place for robocalls, could be set up for any company that provides or creates bots for political entities or for use during election campaigns.

The bot providers would have to register and provide specific information about their services.

The paper speculates that such an approach might encourage creation of accountability practices and codes of conduct for the use of bots.

The Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s cyber spy agency, reported last June that it expects multiple groups to deploy cyber weapons in a bid to influence the outcome of the 2019 federal election.

A September memorandum prepared by an official with the commissioner of elections, notes that bots could be used to “facilitate the disruption of the democratic process in various ways,” including spreading misleading information to voters or transmitting fake news.

They could also be used to illegally capture personal information, such as credit card and banking information, to impersonate party donors or members; disseminate misleading information about candidates, parties or polling station locations; or crash Elections Canada’s online voter registration by flooding the website.

The papers suggest that Elections Canada and the election commissioner’s office are still struggling to come to terms with how to identify and prevent such fraudulent activity and whether either is equipped to do so.

The Elections Canada discussion paper provides more questions than answers, including: “What is EC’s role in education about or prevention of malicious bots’ interference or the dissemination of false information in an election?” and “How would EC monitor, detect or address disinformation about the election process during an election?”

The role of bots, among other cyber weapons, has come under scrutiny since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when Russian operatives are alleged to have used social media, including the use of bots that purported to be American voters, to spread fake news, sow divisions, amplify support for Donald Trump and discredit his rival, Hillary Clinton.

Canadian whistleblower Christopher Wylie sparked an international scandal this week when he revealed that Trump’s 2016 campaign hired a data-analytics company that allegedly harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users — information that Wylie suggested may have been shared with the Russians.