2006-2007 Main Estimates

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Appearance before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics

November 8, 2006
Ottawa, Ontario

Opening Statement by Jennifer Stoddart
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

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Introduction

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak on this very important issue – the Office of the Privacy Commissioner’s budget and the activities we are undertaking with those funds.

You’ve probably noticed that our annual budget has increased significantly this year. This 36% increase is the result of several months of work, effort and energy preparing a comprehensive business plan. This plan was developed with the assistance of an independent consultant and is based on an in-depth analysis of our situation. Consultations were also conducted with the Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) and several agencies with similar mandates with a view to drawing on their best practices and experience. The needs of the organization as a whole, and the individual branches, were rigorously evaluated taking into consideration the unique role of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, whose mandate is to ensure compliance with two statutes: the Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

It is my understanding that you were recently briefed by Treasury Board Secretariat officials on the new funding mechanism for Agents of Parliament. In November 2005, we had the opportunity to present our business case and our request for funding to the new House of Commons Advisory Panel on the funding of Officers of Parliament. We are very pleased the panel and TBS came to the same conclusion and recommended granting our request for the permanent funding necessary to carry out our mandate and our plan, which places increased emphasis on investigations, education and prevention in the public and private sectors. The adequate level of permanent funding that is reflected in this Main Estimates is absolutely crucial to fulfilling our mandate to protect the privacy rights of Canadians.

The Mission of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada

Parliament has signaled the relevance and importance of privacy with the enactment of privacy laws and with the creation of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Privacy is a right seen by many as fundamental to other rights, including the right to autonomy, dignity and integrity of the person. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada protects and promotes the privacy rights of individuals on behalf of Parliamentarians. That is our mission and we take it very seriously.

Increasingly, there are pressing and complex issues putting Canadians’ privacy at risk – the practice of sharing more and more personal information in the name of national security; personal data flowing around the globe; the use of technologies such as global positioning systems, biometrics, radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs) and the potential of publicly available personal information being used for invasive and malevolent purposes.

Our Multi-Faceted Mandate

As you know, my Office oversees compliance with two federal privacy laws – the Privacy Act, which applies to federal institutions, and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which covers personal information-handling practices in the commercial sector.

We act as an independent ombudsman, and are probably best-known for our role as a complaints investigator. However, our responsibilities go far beyond reacting to complaints about possible privacy breaches. We use several other complementary powers – in large part aimed at preventing such breaches.

We are an investigator – but we are also an auditor; a public educator and advocate, a researcher, and an expert privacy advisor.

As an auditor – in both the public and private sectors - we conduct audits and reviews, and verify compliance with privacy laws. We also work to educate government departments and businesses about the importance of protecting privacy and about their legal obligations to do so. We help the public better understand their privacy rights – and act as their advocate when necessary. We conduct research on emerging privacy issues and use that expertise to advise Parliament, government and businesses. And, finally, we challenge the application and interpretation of the laws, and analyze the legal and policy implications of government proposals.

Increasingly, privacy issues do not recognize national borders. Our mandate of protecting Canadians’ privacy rights requires that we work more closely with our international colleagues to explore common approaches to the protection of personal information. I am the chair of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) multinational group that is examining ways to foster international cooperation and facilitate the cross-border enforcement of privacy laws. We are also participating in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation’s efforts to develop Privacy Guidelines. We will continue to work with our international colleagues to develop harmonized approaches, share knowledge and build effective relationships. To that end, we will be hosting the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in September 2007.

Although I know many of you have heard me outline the various and equally important aspects of our mandate before, I am doing so today because I want to stress that we are using our permanent funding to fulfill the activities within our mandate. Our permanent funding is imperative in order to carry out the duties and responsibilities entrusted to us by Parliament.

Financial Situation History

The purpose of my appearance today is to respond to any queries you might have about the new level of funding proposed in the Main Estimates for the 2006-2007 fiscal year. Before this, the level of permanent funding under the Privacy Act was made many years ago. PIPEDA funding, which represents close to two thirds of our annual budget, had been approved in 2001 for three years only and renewed through supplementary estimates the following two years as an interim solution. We needed experience and time to evaluate the appropriate level of resources before making a long-term funding request and commitment.  The resource levels in the Main Estimates now include the necessary funding for the Privacy Act and a renewal and an increase of funding for PIPEDA. We believe this permanent funding is adequate and necessary for the stability of our Office.

Accountability

We pursued an ambitious agenda to correct any deficiencies in management of the organization. Audits and evaluations of our Office – by the Public Service Commission, the Auditor General of Canada and the Canadian Human Rights Commission – have all been positive.   We have implemented a thoughtful, systematic process to determine our organizational needs. I believe this Office is a stable institution worthy of trust of Parliament and the Canadians it serves.

Also on the issue of accountability, Bill C-2, the federal accountability act, will make our Office subject to both the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act for the first time. We support the spirit of this initiative, and this is a welcome step, but it will certainly have an impact on our resources and this is being examined.

Our Priorities

I’d like to tell you about some of the things we’ve been doing this fiscal year.

As you know, our top priority is still clearing a backlog of complaints. We are streamlining our investigations approach and building a larger investigations team, but we are faced with the challenges of recruitment and training, and of course an increasingly complex landscape.

On the audit side, we are intensifying our activities to encourage greater compliance and proactively assist in the development of a robust privacy management regime in the public and private sectors. For example, we recently completed an audit of the Canada Border Services Agency and we’ve just launched two major private-sector audits.

We have been initiating a number of more proactive communications efforts in order to meet our public education mandate and we are also preparing the 29th International Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners Conference.  

Our Research Branch, meanwhile, is supporting independent privacy research projects on topics such as workplace privacy and health-care privacy, and initiating both internal and external research into emerging issues and trends to help citizens and policy makers understand current challenges. With the issues becoming increasingly more complex and technology-driven, it is important that in addition to undertaking our own research, we draw on outside expertise.  

The Policy and Legal Services Branch, meanwhile, is assisting us in becoming more proactive and we hope, through more OPC-led initiatives, to affect systemic change in information-handling practices.

Last year, my Office began taking a stronger stance with respect to recommendations made to private sector organizations in my letters of findings. We began telling organizations that are the subject of well-founded complaints to implement our recommendations or we would take the matter forward to the Federal Court. Unfortunately, there are no sanctions under the Privacy Act, which is one of the reasons it needs an overhaul. It is unacceptable that the private sector is held to a higher standard for privacy protection than the federal government. We should be an example.

I refer you to the study on Privacy Act reform which we tabled with your Committee in June of this year. I look forward to further discussing this issue.

Conclusion

The goal of our Office is to implement our business case within the next two years. At that point, we will need to take another look at our activities and funding needs. I believe we need to constantly challenge ourselves to find better ways to carry out our mandate and get the job done. And the privacy environment is constantly changing; we need to adapt with it. And our privacy laws need to keep up with the times.

We hope you’ll agree with the Parliamentary panel’s recommendation of last year. The increased permanent funding is necessary to ensure that we can effectively protect and promote privacy – the services we offer to Canadians on behalf of Parliamentarians.

We want to do the best we can in carrying out the responsibilities that have been entrusted to us. And we need to have the tools to do our job of protecting Canadians’ right to privacy.

Thank you Mr. Chair.

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