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Privacy at risk from Canadian political parties, says U.K. watchdog

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Canada’s political parties have a privacy problem — and with less than a year to go until the next federal election, it’s more critical than ever that Canadians start asking hard questions about how they’re handling personal data, says the United Kingdom’s information commissioner.

“The way political parties acquire information on individuals should be transparent,” said Elizabeth Denham in an interview this week with CBC Radio’s The House. “Whatever’s going to happen in the future, these micro-targeting techniques are only going to get stronger.”

Denham knows what she’s talking about. The U.K. data watchdog — a Canadian who spent six years as British Columbia’s privacy commissioner — just wrapped up an 18-month investigation into political advertising following the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica’s alleged improper use of data harvested from tens of millions of Facebook users.

Denham told host Chris Hall that after her team of 40 investigators combed through 700 terabytes of seized data — the equivalent of 52 billion pages — they came to some sobering conclusions.

“We examined the practices of political parties and campaigns and we were astounded by the amount of personal information they had available, and also the lack of transparency and disregard for voters’ privacy,” she said.

Why Canadians should care about data protection

Now, Denham is calling on the international community to start policing the data policies of political parties and campaigns, and of social media companies like Facebook.

“It’s a global issue and it needs a global solution. The laws have to allow for extraterritorial reach and we can’t do it alone,” she said.

In Canada, Denham said, she’d like to see stricter privacy laws on the protection of citizens’ data, similar to laws already in place in the European Union.

“In the EU, we had a once-in-a-generation reboot in improvement of our data protection laws,” she said. “To look behind the curtain to examine algorithms, to issue sanctions and fines when companies get it wrong. These are tools that are not available to the Canadian privacy commissioner.”

Canadian political parties still aren’t subject to any rules governing the personal information they gather on citizens — everything from names and addresses to political opinions.

The Privacy Act governs information held by government bodies. The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) applies to private companies. Political parties are exempt from both laws.

“In the U.K., people just take for granted that the privacy law covers all of the players in the ecosystem and that the regulator has real tools to act,” said Denham.

‘The parties are marking their own homework’

Although Canada’s political parties say they have internal policies on data protection, Denham said that’s not good enough.

“You need independent oversight of the policies that are struck by political parties, even if all the parties agree to a certain standard of practice for data and privacy,” she said.

“If you don’t have independent oversight, how can the public trust what’s going on? Because then the parties are marking their own homework.”

In the U.K., Denham has advocated for a statutory and enforceable code of conduct for political campaigning. She’d like to see something similar in Canada.

“I think that’s the way to get it right, if all the players know what the rules are and they’re singing from the same song sheet.”

Until that happens, Canadians should keep asking questions of their political parties and social media companies, she said.

“Then people can challenge what’s being fed into their newsfeed. The societal risk is that we all start to live in filter bubbles and echo chambers, and we don’t know what the public debate is about. That’s a harm to society, not just to individuals.”

Listen to the full interview with Elizabeth Denham on CBC Radio’s The House below.

‘We were astounded by the disregard for voters’ privacy,’ says Elizabeth Denham 12:31

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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