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Privacy Act: Creating a Modern Law for the 21st Century

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Parliament passed Canada’s public sector privacy law back in 1982 – the same year the Commodore 64 computer hit the market. At the time, both were considered pioneering.

The Commodore 64, which looked like an over-sized keyboard and had 64 KB of RAM and a 1-Mhz chip, was the first affordable computer designed for home use. This Canadian invention has often been compared to the Ford Model T.

The passage of the Privacy Act marked the first time in Canada that privacy was dealt with under separate legislation. Until then, more limited privacy protections were provided as an appendage to the Canadian Human Rights Act. Privacy rights had taken an important step forward.

But that was a quarter century ago. Back in 1982, Time magazine broke with its tradition of naming a “Man of the Year,” instead naming the computer as its “Machine of the Year.” Time’s article, which described how the computer had become a tool for the masses, was written on a typewriter.

Times have changed – and so too has the privacy environment. Technology has created new and complex privacy issues.

In 1982, the Internet, global positioning systems, Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFIDs), cross-border outsourcing and data mining were novel ideas. Today, these technologies are commonplace and are the key issues keeping privacy advocates up at night. Another generation of technologies that carry privacy risks – brain scans and smart dust, for example – is just around the corner.

The privacy challenges for government today are compounded by increased globalization and heightened concerns over national security in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

The Privacy Act was not designed to address the era we now live in and it is not up to the job of protecting Canadians in this changed world. In fact, it has been desperately out of date for many years.

Proposals for reforming the Act date back to 1987. Unfortunately, successive federal governments have not heeded the numerous – and increasingly urgent – calls for improvements.

Canada’s private-sector privacy law, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), came into effect in 2001 – making the shortcomings of its public sector sister legislation all the more evident. It is unfortunate that Canadians have stronger privacy safeguards for personal information in the hands of the private sector than they do for that held by government. …

(an extract from our 2006-2007 Annual Report on the Privacy Act, tabled in Parliament today)

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