Privacy Act Reform

ARCHIVED - Recommendations

April 29, 2008


Table of Contents

Recommendations

Recommendation Number 1
Recommendation Number 2
Recommendation Number 3
Recommendation Number 4
Recommendation Number 5
Recommendation Number 6
Recommendation Number 7
Recommendation Number 8
Recommendation Number 9
Recommendation Number 10


Top of PageTable of ContentsRecommendations

Recommendation Number 1: Create a legislative “necessity test” which would require government institutions to demonstrate the need for the personal information they collect.

Recommendation Number 2: Broaden the grounds for which an application for Court review under section 41 of the Privacy Act may be made to include the full array of privacy rights and protections under the Privacy Act and give the Federal Court the power to award damages against offending institutions.

Recommendation Number 3: Enshrine a requirement for heads of government institutions subject to the Privacy Act to assess the privacy impact of programs or systems prior to their implementation and to publicly report assessment results.

Recommendation Number 4: Amend the Privacy Act to provide the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada with a clear public education mandate.

Recommendation Number 5: Provide greater discretion for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada to report publicly on the privacy management practices of government institutions.

Recommendation Number 6: Provide discretion for the Privacy Commissioner to refuse and/or discontinue complaints the investigation of which would serve little or no useful purpose, and would not be in the public interest to pursue.

Recommendation Number 7: Amend the Privacy Act to align it with the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act by eliminating the restriction that the Privacy Act applies to recorded information only.

Recommendation Number 8: Strengthen the annual reporting requirements of government departments and agencies under section 72 of the Privacy Act, by requiring these institutions to report to Parliament on a broader spectrum of privacy-related activities.

Recommendation Number 9: Introduction of a provision requiring an ongoing five year Parliamentary review of the Privacy Act.

Recommendation Number 10: Strengthen the provisions governing the disclosure of personal information by the Canadian government to foreign states.


Top of PageTable of ContentsRecommendation Number 1:

Create a legislative “necessity test” which would require government institutions to demonstrate the need for the personal information they collect.

 

Relevant Section(s) of the Privacy Act:

Section 4. No personal information shall be collected by a government institution unless it relates directly to an operating program or activity of the institution.

Background:

A far more effective expression of privacy rights, typical of modern data protection laws, is to require that the collection of information be reasonable and necessary for the program or activity. This standard has been adopted in other legislation both in Canada and abroad. Treasury Board policy states that there must be a demonstrable need for each piece of personal information collected in order to carry out the program or activity. Principle 4.4 of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (“PIPEDA”)requires the collection to be limited to that which is necessary for the purposes identified. The standard set in section 12 of the CSIS Act limits information collection “to the extent that it is strictly necessary” to that institution’s mandate.

Almost all provinces and the territories have adopted a model in the public sector legislation that requires that one of three conditions be met: (i) the collection is expressly authorized by statute; (ii) the information is collected for the purpose of law enforcement; or (iii) the information relates directly to and is necessary for an operating program or activity.

Consideration should also be given to including a requirement that the government institution must collect personal information in the least intrusive and most transparent manner possible, to address technologies which are inherently privacy-invasive such as video surveillance, GPS, biometrics, etc.

Rationale:

Giving Effect to the Fundamental Right to Privacy

The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized on numerous occasions that privacy interests are worthy of protection under the Charter1 and that the Privacy Act has quasi-constitutional status.2 The current wording of section 4 of the Privacy Act sets a disproportionately low standard for the fundamental rights at the heart of the Privacy Act. By building in better controls at the collection point, there is less potential for misusing and disclosing personal information.

Providing Stronger Legislative Controls around the Collection of Personal Information

The public reaction to HRDC’s Longitudinal Labour Force File provides a graphic reminder of the need to provide better legislative controls around the collection of personal information. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner (the “OPC”) reported on this matter in its 1999-2000 Annual Report. The department had assembled an extensive database for research purposes containing personal information on millions of individuals. While the department argued that it was in compliance with the literal collection standard set by the Privacy Act, the OPC did not accept that all of the information contained in that database was directly relevant and necessary to HRDC’s operating programs and policy activities. Since then, the database has been dismantled and the department has been steadily improving in its privacy management practices.

In another of its recommendations, the OPC urges that the Privacy Act be broadened to permit an individual to seek court review for all aspects of personal information collection, use and disclosure. An appropriate collection standard, combined with a right of court review, would be an important first step in creating a more meaningful legal framework.

Top of PageTable of ContentsRecommendation Number 2:

Broaden the grounds for which an application for Court review under section 41 of the Privacy Act may be made to include the full array of privacy rights and protections under the Privacy Act and give the Federal Court the power to award damages against offending institutions.

 

Relevant Section(s) of the Privacy Act:

41. Any individual who has been refused access to personal information requested under subsection 12(1) may, if a complaint has been made to the Privacy Commissioner in respect of the refusal, apply to the Court for a review of the matter within forty-five days after the time the results of an investigation of the complaint by the Privacy Commissioner are reported to the complainant under subsection 35(2) or within such further time as the Court may, either before or after the expiration of those forty-five days, fix or allow.

42. The Privacy Commissioner may
(a) apply to the Court, within the time limits prescribed by section 41, for a review of any refusal to disclose personal information requested under subsection 12(1) in respect of which an investigation has been carried out by the Privacy Commissioner, if the Commissioner has the consent of the individual who requested access to the information;
(b) appear before the Court on behalf of any individual who has applied for a review under section 41; or
(c) with leave of the Court, appear as a party to any review applied for under section 41.

Background:

Under section 41 of the Privacy Act,the Federal Court may only review a refusal by a government institution to grant access to personal information requested by an individual under section 12 of the Privacy Act. Although the Commissioner can investigate complaints concerning the full array of rights and protections under the Privacy Act and make recommendations to the government institution, if the response of the institution is not satisfactory, neither the individual nor the Privacy Commissioner has the possibility to apply to the Federal Court for enforcement and remedy.

The inability of the Privacy Act to provide effective remedies for violations of privacy rights was confirmed by the Federal Court in Murdoch v. Canada (Royal Canadian Mounted Police),[2005] 4 F.C.R. 340. In that case, the RCMP wrongfully disclosed personal information regarding Mr. Murdoch to his employer. The OPC concluded that Mr. Murdoch’s complaint was well-founded, and he tried to seek a Court remedy. However, the Court concluded that, as it is currently structured, the Privacy Act did not give Mr. Murdoch the right to seek a remedy for the breach of his privacy. Furthermore, the Court noted that the power of the Federal Court to grant a remedy is effectively restricted to granting access to personal information.

Rationale:

Giving Effect to the Fundamental and Quasi-Constitutional Status of Privacy Rights

Broadening Federal Court review would confirm that privacy rights in the public sector and the private sector are equally important, ensure that government institutions respect every Canadian’s right to have their personal information collected, used and disclosed in accordance with the Privacy Act and give full weight to the privacy rights of individuals in a free and democratic society. The Supreme Court of Canada has confirmed that the purpose of the Privacy Act is to protect the privacy of individuals with respect to personal information about themselves held by a government institution, this purpose being of such importance to warrant characterizing the Privacy Act as “quasi-constitutional” because of the role privacy plays in the preservation of a free and democratic society. 3

Keeping Government Accountability Through a Meaningful Review Mechanism

Implementing our recommendation would give Canadians the same rights regarding their personal information collected, used or disclosed by their own government institutions that they hold vis-à-vis private-sector organizations exercising commercial activities under PIPEDA.Government institutions should be even more open and accountable with respect to their personal information handling practices, and increasing government accountability clearly requires strengthened privacy rights when it comes to how government handles the personal information of Canadians. Our recommendation is essential to achieving meaningful government accountability and transparency.

Directly Protecting Privacy Rights Through the Intended Legislation

The Supreme Court of Canada has held that a third-party to an access to information request made under the ATI Act can apply to the Federal Court for a hearing in respect of a government institution’s disclosure of personal information.4 Given that the Supreme Court of Canada has held that the right to privacy is paramount over the right of access to information, how can it be that a third-party can appear before the Federal Court with respect to the disclosure of another person’s personal information under the ATI Act, but that an individual cannot even seek enforcement and a remedy for a violation of the fundamental right of privacy under the Privacy Act vis-à-vis his or her own personal information? Broadening Federal Court review under the Privacy Act would address this unintended consequence.

There is No Right Without a Remedy

Every right needs a remedy in order to have meaning. This is especially so with respect to a fundamental right such as privacy.  Implementing our recommendation would ensure that the Federal Court can review the full array of fundamental rights and protections under the Privacy Act, including inappropriate collection, use or disclosure of personal information, failure to maintain up-to-date and accurate data, improper retention or disposal, and denials of access or correction by government institutions. It would also ensure that the Federal Court may award damages in cases where, for example, the inappropriate use or disclosure of personal information causes embarrassment or other harms to the individual concerned.

The Need for Court Guidance

Implementing our recommendation would allow the Federal Court to provide needed guidance on what constitutes inappropriate collection, use or disclosure of personal information.

Top of PageTable of ContentsRecommendation Number 3:

Enshrine a requirement for heads of government institutions subject to the Privacy Act to assess the privacy impact of programs or systems prior to their implementation and to publicly report assessment results.

 

Relevant Section(s) of the Privacy Act:

There is no specific section requiring Privacy Impact Assessments as part of a sound privacy regime that should be in place for ensuring compliance with the Privacy Act and fair information principles.

Background:

In May 2002, the Treasury Board Secretariat (the “TBS”) introduced an administrative policy on Privacy Impact Assessments. The policy was adopted to assure Canadians that privacy principles would be taken into account when there are proposals for programs and services that raise privacy issues, throughout the design, implementation and evolution of those initiatives. This represents a core component of a privacy compliant regime since the policy requires that institutions demonstrate that their collection, use and disclosure of personal information respect the Privacy Act.

Rationale:

Given the unevenness with which government institutions are implementing the Privacy Impact Assessment policy, there should be a legal requirement for Privacy Impact Assessments to ensure that they are done on a consistent and timely basis.

Ensuring Compliance with the Privacy Impact Assessment Policy

In the OPC’s 2007 audit of government compliance with the Privacy Impact Assessment policy, it was ascertained that institutions are not fully meeting their commitments under the policy. Privacy Impact Assessments are not always conducted when they should be. They are frequently completed well after program implementation, or not at all. Present PIA reporting and notification standards provide little assurance or information to Canadians seeking to understand the privacy implications of government services or programs.

Furthermore, the Policy in and of itself does not provide assurance that privacy impacts are being assessed for pervasive and strategic government-wide initiatives. Knowing the potential privacy impacts of proposed policies and plans would provide government (TBS and/or Cabinet) with an early opportunity to modify programs or systems to protect the personal information of individuals in Canada, and perhaps reduce future costs associated with program or system changes.

Strengthening Accountability

Privacy Impact Assessments should be submitted to the OPC for review prior to program implementation. Review by the OPC provides independent and objective recommendations as to how privacy could be better protected while meeting program objectives in less intrusive ways.

Ensuring the Transparency of Government Programs

Privacy Impact Assessments are vitally important and should be a key element of a privacy management framework enshrined in legislation. Canadians should be assured in law that privacy risks will be identified and mitigated as an integral part of administering federal government programs. To this end, institutions should be required to publicly report assessment results. In making the privacy implications of programs more transparent, Canadians will have an opportunity to voice their concerns and will have assurance that privacy risks are being addressed.

Top of PageTable of ContentsRecommendation Number 4:

Amend the Privacy Act to provide the OPC with a clear public education mandate.

 

Relevant Section(s) of the Privacy Act:

There is no specific section providing the OPC with an explicit public education mandate.

Background:

While PIPEDA provides the OPC with a public education mandate, the Privacy Act does not do so explicitly. Section 24 of PIPEDA states that “the Commissioner shall: (a) develop and conduct information programs to foster public understanding?; (b) undertake and publish research that is related to the protection of personal information, including any such research that is requested by the Minister of Industry; (c) encourage organizations to develop detailed policies and practices, including organizational codes of practice?; and (d) promote, by any means that the Commissioner considers appropriate, the purposes of this Part.”

Rationale:

While the OPC’s central function under the Privacy Act is the investigation and resolution of complaints, the OPC also needs to advance privacy rights by other means – through research, communication and public education. The Commissioner lacks the legislative mandate under the Privacy Act to educate the public about their informational privacy rights with respect to information held by federal government institutions. The Commissioner should be equally empowered to sensitize business, government and the public under the Privacy Act.

Case Summaries on Public Sector Personal Information Management

Currently, the main vehicle for reporting on cases is the Annual Report under the Privacy Act. However, with a more explicit public education mandate and more flexible means for public reporting, the OPC could publish a compendium of significant cases that fall under the Privacy Act, notably in the areas of national security, law enforcement, and health. Several civil society groups with an interest in privacy promotion have urged the OPC to make more timely public reports on the state of governmental surveillance activities and how these activities may impact on privacy.

Periodic Assessments of Departmental Privacy Performance

The OPC wishes to foster a more informed public debate of the federal government’s role in areas involving the sharing of personal information between agencies and jurisdictions. A clear public education authority would allow the OPC to publish public advisories and education material on significant policy and legislative measures with “personal information” components.  

Support the Learning Objectives of Informational Rights Professionals

Surveys carried out by Treasury Board Canada indicate there are significant learning needs on the part of Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) professionals, pointing to the increased number and complexity of cases, as well as to the number of new organizations being covered by the Privacy Act as a result of the adoption of the Federal Accountability Act. The surveys also reveal—corroborated by the OPC’s own audit and review work—that learning needs are not being addressed by the current learning infrastructure. By making more information available in a more timely way, the OPC will become a valuable source of information on the need for a more consistent approach to privacy management across the federal government.

Broader Parameters for the OPC’s Research Program

Better research into public sector personal information management is needed to inform public policy. Section 24 of PIPEDA allows the OPC to undertake and publish research that is related to the protection of personal information in the private sector, with a specific funding envelope. Under this education mandate, the OPC has put in place a comprehensive Research Contributions Program which has allocated over $1,000,000 to more than 30 privacy research initiatives in Canada, resulting in extensive studies on key privacy issues. These research papers are publicly available on the OPC website. A similar mandate should exist under the Privacy Act for research relating to public sector matters.

Benefits the Citizens and Residents of Canada

A clearer public education mandate for the OPC would allow for more extensive and better informed public dialogue on federal privacy management in areas of critical importance to the right to privacy. It would also ensure a more consistent approach to privacy compliance by addressing the learning needs of informational rights professionals. 

Top of PageTable of ContentsRecommendation Number 5:

Provide greater discretion for the OPC to disclose information in the public interest on the privacy management practices of government institutions.

 

Relevant Section(s) of the Privacy Act:

There is no specific section authorizing the Commissioner to make public interest disclosures under the Privacy Act.

Background:

Pursuant to the Federal Accountability Act, the OPC is now subject to both the ATI Act and the Privacy Act. As a result, there is now a public right of access under the ATI Act to certain information contained in OPC investigation files, and an individual right of access to personal information in such files under the Privacy Act. The right of access arises only once the OPC has completed its investigation, thus respecting the need to maintain confidentiality of ongoing investigations.

No changes were made by the Federal Accountability Act to the provisions in the Privacy Act that govern the Commissioner’s authority to initiate a public release of its investigation activities and findings. As a result, the only clear legislative vehicles available to the OPC for public reporting purposes are the annual and special reporting provisions.

Rationale:

Serving the Public Interest and Meeting Public Expectations

It would be consistent with the recent amendments to the ATI Act and Privacy Act granting a right of access to information in OPC investigation files, to permit the OPC to release information on its own initiative concerning the personal information management practices of a government institution where this serves the public interest.

There is a public expectation that the OPC will investigate and report on matters of public interest. This is particularly so where the privacy issue is already in the public domain. The OPC has been hampered in its ability to speak with the press, with the public, and even with Members of Parliament, due to the existing confidentiality constraints in the Privacy Act. Furthermore, a public interest disclosure discretion would allow for more timely and relevant disclosure rather than having to wait until the end of the reporting year when the information may have become moot, stale or largely irrelevant.

Educating Canadians

Strengthening the ability to report publicly is an integral component of a strong public education mandate. Under PIPEDA,the legislated public education mandate is accompanied by the discretion to disclose information concerning the personal information management practices of an organization if the Commissioner considers that it is in the public interest to do so.

Upholding Public Confidence

The discretion to report publicly under PIPEDA has been an invaluable tool for the OPC in advancing public understanding, providing public assurances, and restoring public confidence where required. The discretion to make a public interest disclosure has been used responsibly and judiciously by the OPC, after due consideration of the various interests at play.

Top of PageTable of ContentsRecommendation Number 6:

Provide discretion for the Privacy Commissioner to refuse and/or discontinue complaints the investigation of which would serve little or no useful purpose, and would not be in the public interest to pursue.

 

Relevant Section(s) of the Privacy Act:

Section 29(1). Subject to this Act, the Privacy Commissioner shall receive and investigate complaints?

Currently, subsection 29(1) of the Privacy Act requires the Privacy Commissioner to receive and investigate all complaints. The Privacy Act affords her with no discretion whatsoever to refuse to investigate complaints and/or discontinue investigations on any grounds.

Background:

At the time the OPC requested and received additional funding in 2006, it was the hope that the generous influx of new resources would enable the Office to reduce the lengthy and persistent delays associated with having to investigate all individual complaints that come in the door, while at the same time, focus efforts towards the more systemic and pervasive privacy threats facing modern society as a whole. Despite the progress the OPC has made to date, and notwithstanding plans to take these efforts to the next level, valuable Office resources are still being disproportionately consumed by having to open and investigate all individual complaints on a first-come first-serve basis. The waste of public resources is particularly taxing in cases where the complaints appear to have no merit, the central issue is clearly not privacy but some different dispute between the parties, the Office’s intervention would serve no useful purpose and/or a full-scale investigation into the matter would not be in the public interest.

As concrete examples of some of the kinds of complaints the OPC receives, relatively little is gained by investigating and/or re-investigating:

  1. repetitive issues that come up and have already been clearly decided in past cases (e.g. legitimate collection and use of Social Insurance Numbers);
  2. moot time complaints where the individual has since received the information requested (e.g. where access was already provided, though technically out of time and at no disadvantage to the individual);
  3. frequent complaints brought forward by the same individual who has an obvious “axe to grind” against an government institution (e.g. where contentious labour or employment issues constitute the real dispute between the parties which could be more effectively dealt with through other, more appropriate procedures);
  4. multiple complaints brought by many individuals in respect of the same incident (e.g. a data breach involving personal information of many individuals which is already well documented and need not be re-investigated only to confirm what is already known);
  5. issues that have already been recognized and addressed by the government institution (e.g. effective remedial action has already been taken).

Rationale:

More Effective Use of Limited Resources

Greater discretion at the front end of the intake function would enable the Commissioner to concentrate her limited available resources on complaints that raise systemic issues and have broader, more significant impact on the state of personal information management across the Federal Government.

Traditionally, privacy issues have come up through the individual complaint system as a result of discrete informational transactions between individuals and their governments. Today, major privacy issues arise from more systemic threats resulting from the encroachment of national security and law enforcement initiatives, multiple trans-border data flows, sophisticated data-mining and data-matching programs, and rapidly-advancing information technologies, particularly those enabled by the internet. Such new and emerging threats affect society as a whole, on such a daily and pervasive level, and in such complex and non-transparent fashion, that in most cases, the average person would not even know about them, let alone complain about them.

Data protection authorities around the world recognize that they must increasingly direct their efforts at curbing these massive threats at their source, as these emerge, rather than wait for an individual to bring a complaint about them and deal with them as they make their way up the long queue. Many data protection authorities in Canada and elsewhere face similar challenges in having to treat all complaints received indiscriminately, with no ability to dismiss or discontinue some of them early on where no public interest would be served by investigating or continuing to investigate them. We are all concerned about the cost of carrying out investigations that amount to no useful purpose and the corresponding opportunity cost of not dealing more effectively with the growing number of broad and systemic issues that are far more pervasive and pose much greater threat to privacy rights.

Focussing Investigative Resources on Privacy Issues that are of Broader Public Interest

The UK Commissioner recently asked the British Parliament for the right to investigate only when an issue is in the public interest.  In like manner, the US Federal Trade Commission (the “FTC”) does not accept complaints from individuals but uses them to track systemic issues warranting FTC intervention.  Here in Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act and the Accountability Act as well as the Quebec Private Sector Act allow those Commissioners to refuse or cease to examine a matter if the application is frivolous, made in bad faith, could be better dealt with in another forum or where further investigation would clearly serve no purpose.5 In November 2007, the Alberta Select Special Review Committee recommended that Alberta’s Personal Information Protection Act be amended “to provide the Commissioner with explicit authority to discontinue an investigation or a review when the Commissioner believes the complaint or request for review is without merit or where there is not sufficient evidence to proceed.”6 More recently, the British Columbia Special Review Committee recommended an identical amendment to B.C.’s Personal Information Protection Act, as well as a further clarification “that the Commissioner has the discretion not to proceed with an inquiry in certain circumstances and the authority to reasonably determine his own process.”7

The OPC requests that the Committee recommend granting similar discretion for the Commissioner: one which gives the Commissioner greater discretion at the front-end to refuse complaints and/or close complaints early if their investigation would serve no useful purpose, thereby allowing the Office to focus its investigative resources on privacy issues that are of broader public interest. The OPC has asked the government that it be given the same discretion under PIPEDA and it makes sense that both Acts should mirror each other in this respect.

Top of PageTable of ContentsRecommendation Number 7:

Amend the Privacy Act to align it with PIPEDA by
eliminating the restriction that the Privacy Act
applies to recorded information only.

 

Relevant Section(s) of the Privacy Act:

Section 3 of the Privacy Act defines personal information for the purposes of the Act to mean “information about an identifiable individual that is recorded in any form?”

Background:

The definition of personal information under the Privacy Act is limited to information that exists in recorded form. At the moment, personal information contained in DNA and other biological samples is not explicitly covered. This is not the case in the PIPEDA legislation – in which the definition of personal information includes personal information in any form. New health sector privacy laws in Canada also define personal information to include unrecorded personal information. This broader, more modernized definition serves as a means to protect the privacy rights of Canadians in a changing, technology-driven world.

Rationale:

Having the Privacy Act Reflect Modern Realities

The Privacy Act’s current definition of personal information is outdated. Unrecorded information, such as from surveillance cameras that monitor, but do not record, individuals at border crossings and the comings and goings of government workers is beyond the scope of the Privacy Act. In an ever-shrinking world, it is important that individuals are free to go about their daily activities anonymously. With the onset of rapid technological changes, governments are using increasingly sophisticated means to monitor Canadians in the work place and on the streets.

Likewise, personal information such as DNA and other human tissue samples are not covered. This use of unrecorded information can yield intelligible information about identifiable individuals. As such, it should have legal protection.

Harmonizing the Definition of Personal Information

Modern privacy laws such as PIPEDA and provincial private sector privacy laws apply to both recorded and unrecorded information. For example, a security company in the Northwest Territories mounted four security cameras on the roof of its building aimed at a main intersection in Yellowknife. For several days, 24 hours a day, staff monitored a live feed and reported a number of incidents to local police. The monitoring was intended to demonstrate the service and generate business for the company.

Although a public outcry quickly ended the company’s video surveillance demonstration, the OPC had the power to investigate under PIPEDA and issued findings that provided helpful guidance for other organizations. The OPC concluded that, while monitoring public places may be appropriate for public safety reasons, there must be a demonstrable need, the monitoring must be done by lawful public authorities and it must be carried out in ways that incorporate all legal privacy safeguards. The Privacy Act would not have permitted an investigation in this situation, since no video recordings were made. A reformed Privacy Act needs to be responsive to the digital imagery and biometric applications of contemporary law enforcement surveillance and monitoring activities.

Top of PageTable of ContentsRecommendation Number 8:

Strengthen the annual reporting requirements of government departments and agencies under section 72 of the Privacy Act, by requiring these institutions to report to Parliament on a broader spectrum of privacy-related activities.

 

Relevant Section(s) of the Privacy Act:

Section 72(1). The head of every government institution shall prepare for submission to Parliament an annual report on the administration of this Act within the institution during each financial year.

Background:

The Treasury Board Secretariat issued privacy reporting guidelines for government institutions in April 2005, and updated these in February 2008.8 The guidelines buttress section 72 by requiring Deputy Heads to report comprehensively on a wide range of management matters related to privacy promotion and protection within federal institutions.

Rationale:

The Need for More Substantive Information

Our experience in reviewing section 72 reports over the years indicates that on the whole they have rarely contained substantive information. As such their use to Parliament, Canadians, and the OPC has been somewhat limited. Section 72 reports have tended to be a patchwork of statistics pertaining to the number of requests received under the Privacy Act, the dispositions taken on completed requests, the exemptions invoked or exclusions cited, and completion times.  

Integrating Into Law TBS Guidelines

The OPC is of the view that the Privacy Act should be amended by integrating into the legislation requirements already provided for under the Treasury Board guidelines. These guidelines are quite comprehensive, and among other things require government institutions to provide:

  • a description of each PIA completed during the reporting period;
  • an indication of the number of new data matching and data sharing activities undertaken;
  • a description of privacy-related education and training activities initiated;
  • a summary of significant changes to organizational structure, programs, operations, or policies that may impact on privacy;
  • an overview of new and/or revised privacy related policies and procedures implemented;
  • a description of major changes implemented as a result of concerns or issues raised by the OPC or the Auditor General;
  • an indication of privacy complaints or investigations processed and a summary of related key issues, and;
  • an indication of the number of applications or appeals submitted to the Federal Court or Federal Court of Appeal on Privacy Act matters.
Benefits to Parliament, the OPC and Canadians

The Treasury Board guidelines would have added weight and authority if their provisions were mandated by the Privacy Act. Parliamentary committees would be better positioned to discharge their responsibilities to review the personal information management practices of the federal government in the broader context of reviewing departmental performance. A more comprehensive coverage of privacy management issues would provide Parliamentarians with relevant information to evaluate the extent to which government institutions are addressing new and emerging privacy challenges, and whether programs or initiatives being undertaken may pose a threat to the privacy rights of citizens. Canadians too would be better informed on how their personal information is being handled by government departments and agencies, and the manner in which their information requests or complaints are being processed. The OPC could better carry out its mandate, for the benefit of Parliament and Canadians as a whole.

Top of PageTable of ContentsRecommendation Number 9:

Introduction of a provision requiring an ongoing five year Parliamentary review of the Privacy Act.

 

Relevant Section(s) of the Privacy Act:

Section 75(1). The administration of this Act shall be reviewed on a permanent basis by such committee of the House of Commons, of the Senate or of both Houses of Parliament as may be designated or established by Parliament for that purpose.

Section 75(2). The committee designated or established by Parliament for the purpose of subsection (1) shall, not later than July 1, 1986, undertake a comprehensive review of the provisions and operation of this Act, and shall, within a year after the review is undertaken or within such further time as the House of Commons may authorize, submit a report to Parliament thereon including a statement of any changes the committee would recommend.

Background:

Currently, there is no mandatory periodic review of the Privacy Act to ensure its ongoing evolution and adaptation to modern realities and challenges. By contrast, section 29 of PIPEDA requires that the first part of that act be reviewed every five years by the committee of the House of Commons, or of both Houses of Parliament, that may be designated or established by Parliament for that purpose. A number of provinces have a similar requirement for regular legislative review of their public sector privacy law.

While a statutory review of the Privacy Act took place in 1987, the recommendations in the report Open and Shut and in the testimony heard by the Justice standing committee were never enacted.9 The OPC has repeatedly emphasized the need for informed public debate on privacy laws whether they apply to the operations of government or to the activities of the private sector. Discussion of privacy issues has been spotty and targeted since the review in 1987, with a very limited consultation on electronic commerce issues prior to PIPEDA implementation, and the sole Senate committee hearings on the proposed privacy charter under Senator Sheila Finestone in 1995-96.10

Rationale:

Harmonize the Data Protection Framework across Jurisdictions in Canada

Harmonization between private sector and public sector laws at the federal level, and between federal and provincial legislation, is a laudable goal for the privacy protection regime in Canada wherever possible. Committing government officials to a regular review of the legislation would greatly assist in that regard, as developments at various levels of government could be more easily taken into account.

Ensure the Privacy Act Keeps Pace with Rapidly Evolving Technologies and International Trends

The Privacy Act serves as the information crux between Canadians and their government; but as with previous reviews, there is a real risk of this legislation fading into irrelevance as new programs, technologies and data practices go unmonitored. A serious, sustained national discussion is now needed to renew the Privacy Act for the networked, digital environment that now exists in Canada. Cyberspace was the stuff of science fiction when the Privacy Act came into force twenty-five years ago; today the Internet and digital devices shape our identities, professional lives and personal sphere in new ways every day.

In summary, the five-year review requirement would serve three ends. It would help synchronize the Canadian data protection framework across jurisdictions; keep the privacy practices of all organizations, both private and public sector, on the minds of Canadian decision-makers and industry; and it would ensure federal law keeps pace with rapidly evolving technologies and international trends.

Top of PageTable of ContentsRecommendation Number 10:

Strengthen the provisions governing the disclosure of personal information by the Canadian government to foreign states.

 

Relevant Section(s) of the Privacy Act:

Paragraph 8(2) Subject to any other Act of Parliament, personal information under the control of a government institution may be disclosed ? (f) under an agreement or arrangement between the Government of Canada or an institution thereof and ? the government of a foreign state, an international organization of states or an international organization established by the governments of states, or any institution of any such government or organization, for the purpose of administering or enforcing any law or carrying out a lawful investigation.

Background:

Technological advances over the past two decades have made it much easier and cheaper for governments to collect and retain personal information about their citizens. At the same time, information sharing between nations has increased dramatically as governments have adopted more coordinated approaches to regulating the movement of goods and people and to combating transnational crimes and international terrorism. In particular, enhanced information sharing has been a key strategy in improving intelligence analysis since September 2001.

To cite a few examples: the Canadian Border Services Agency shares customs information and information about travellers entering Canada; the Financial Transaction and Reports Analysis Centre (“FINTRAC”) has over 40 agreements with other financial intelligence units to shares information about individuals suspected of engaging in money laundering or terrorist financing; Canada has negotiated Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLATs) with several countries; and law enforcement and national security agencies regularly share information with international counterparts.

However, the Privacy Act does not reflect this increase in international information sharing. The Privacy Act places only two restrictions on disclosures to foreign governments: an agreement or arrangement must exist; and the personal information must be used for administering or enforcing a law or conducting an investigation. The Privacy Act does not even require that the agreement or arrangement be in writing. The Privacy Act does not impose any duty on the disclosing institution to identify the precise purpose for which the data will be disclosed and limit its subsequent use by the foreign government to that purpose, limit the amount of personal information disclosed and restrict further disclosure to third parties. Moreover, the Privacy Act even fails to impose any basic obligations on the Canadian government institution itself to adequately safeguard personal information.

As reported in the OPC’S 2002-2003 Annual Report, the Office conducted a preliminary review of 21 information-sharing agreements between Canada and the US. It concluded that only about one-third were reasonably well drafted. To mention just two deficiencies: many of the agreements did not describe the personal information to be shared or include a third party caveat; that is, a statement indicating that the information received under the agreement will not be disclosed to a third party without the prior written consent of the party that provided the information.

Rationale:

Putting in Place Standards for the Sharing of Personal Information

The consequences of sharing personal information without adequate controls are clearly demonstrated in Justice O’Connor’s Report on the Factual Inquiry with respect to the Commission of Inquiry into the Actions of Canadian Officials in Relation to Maher Arar. Justice O’Connor concluded that it was very likely that, in making the decisions to detain and remove Mr. Arar to Syria, the U.S. authorities relied on inaccurate information about Mr. Arar provided by the RCMP.

The lack of standards governing the sharing of personal information by Canadian officials was also addressed in a January 2008 public hearing as part of work currently being conducted by former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Iacobucci, in the Internal inquiry into the actions of Canadian officials in relation to Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin.

Minimizing Risks to Canadians by Clearly Defining Responsibilities

In order to minimize the risks to Canadians resulting from this increased information sharing, the OPC believes that the Government of Canada and Parliament should consider specific provisions to define the responsibilities of those who transfer personal information to other jurisdictions and to address the issue of the adequacy of protection in those jurisdictions.

Prescribing the Form and Content of Information-Sharing Agreements

The Treasury Board Secretariat has developed guidelines setting out elements that a written agreement or arrangement should contain. These guidelines are a positive first step that should be formalized either in legislation or by amending section 77 of the Privacy Act to include a provision allowing the Governor-in-Council to make regulations prescribing the form and content of information-sharing agreements.

Limiting Disclosure of Personal information

In addition, paragraph 8(2)(f) should be amended to state that personal information may only be disclosed where the information is required for the purpose of administering or enforcing any law which has a reasonable and direct connection to the original purpose for which the information was obtained.


1 See for example, Dagg v. Canada (Minister of Finance),[1997] 2 S.C.R. 403.

2 Canada (Information Commissioner) v. Canada (Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), [2003] 1 S.C.C. 66; Lavigne v. Canada (Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages), [2002] 2 S.C.C. 773; and H.J. Heinz Co. of Canada Ltd. v. Canada (Attorney General), [2006] 1 S.C.R. 441 [Heinz].

3 Heinz, supra note 2.

4 Ibid.

5 An Act Respecting the Protection of Personal Information in the Private Sector, R.S.Q., c.P-39, s. 52 states: “The Commission may refuse or cease to examine a matter if it has reasonable grounds to believe that the application is frivolous or made in bad faith or that its intervention would clearly serve no purpose.”  The Canadian Human Rights Act, R.S.C., 1985, c.H-6, s.41, the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, S.C. 2005, c.46, s.24, and the Federal  Accountability Act, S.C. 2006,c.9, s. 52 all have similar sections.

6 Select Special Personal Information Protection Act Review Committee, Final Report, November 2007, http://www.assembly.ab.ca/committees/reports/PIPA/
finalpipawReport111407.pdf
, Recommendation 32 at 34.

7 Streamlining British Columbia’s Private Sector Privacy Law: Report of the Special Committee to Review the Personal Information Protection Act, April 2008, Recommendations 27 and 29, at 33-35.

8 The guidelines, titled Annual Reports on the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act - Implementation Report No. 109, are available at: http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/atip-aiprp/impl-rep/2008/109-imp-mise_e.asp.

9 Open and Shut: Enhancing the Right to Know and the Right to Privacy, Report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Solicitor General on the Review of the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act (March 1987).

10 Privacy: Where Do We Draw The Line? Report of the Standing Committee on Human Rights and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (April 1997), available at http://www.privcom.gc.ca/information/02_06_03d_e.pdf (accessed April 22, 2008)