Appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security on the Statutory Review of the Sex Offender Information Registry Act

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April 23, 2009
Ottawa, Ontario

Statement by Carman Baggaley
Strategic Privacy Advisor

(Check against delivery)

Good morning,

My name is Carman Baggaley.  I am a Strategic Policy Advisor with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.  I am here with our General Counsel, Lisa Campbell

We are pleased to be here to participate in the review of the Sex Offender Information Registration Act.

Our Office has an obvious interest in the Act.  The Act requires convicted sex offenders to register with the police and, after they are released, regularly inform the police of their movements.  In addition, they are required to provide personal information—telephone numbers, secondary addresses, etc—that potentially allows the police to contact them.      

These are requirements that are not imposed on other types of offenders who have completed their sentences.

We understand why this is the case given the seriousness of these offences.

Nonetheless, this is a significant intrusion of an individual’s privacy, an intrusion that can only be justified on the grounds that it produces a clear and demonstrable public safety benefit that cannot be achieved through less intrusive means. 

One way to assess the reasonableness of the inherent intrusiveness of the legislation is to look at its effectiveness.  We know that questions were raised about the potential effectiveness of the Registry when the legislation was first proposed.   We are not aware of any formal evaluations that have been done since the Act came into force that directly attempts to answer these questions.

Assessing the effectiveness of the scheme is important—if it’s not effective then the privacy intrusion is for nought.  Sacrificing someone’s privacy rights in the hope that this may protect society is a dangerous precedent. 

We expect that the Committee will hear many suggestions to improve the Registry and we expect that many of these suggestions will involve expanding the scope of the regime.  This could involve a number of possible changes such as increasing the number of designated offences, eliminating judicial discretion with respect to the issuance of orders requiring an offender to comply with the registration requirements or allowing broader use of, or greater access to, the Registry. 

We would urge the Committee to avoid trying to improve the effectiveness of the Registry by allowing its broader use.  Providing public access to the registry or allowing to be used for community notification could be counter productive.  Incidents have occurred in both the United States and the United Kingdom in which members of the public have attacked and even killed people suspected of being sex offenders based on information contained in the press or accessible through the Internet.

Aside from the harm caused to the offender, or in some cases someone wrongly thought to be an offender, this publicity may be counterproductive. It can drive offenders underground and make them less likely to comply with registration requirements.  The purpose of the Act is “to help police investigate crimes of a sexual nature by requiring registration of certain information related to sex offences.”  Making changes to the Act that would reduce the likelihood of compliance runs counter to this purpose.      

Publicizing the identities of offenders may also make them less likely to seek treatment and it could make it harder for them to establish a stable environment, increasing the possibility that they may reoffend.

We did not come here this morning to urge the Committee to recommend withdrawing the legislation.  We know this is not going to happen.

We know that there is considerable pressure to change the legislation.  We would urge the Committee to look at any proposals carefully, particularly proposals that would increase the amount of information being collected or expand the permitted uses.  There may be ways to make the scheme more effective, through increased resources or through procedural changes that would enhance the effectiveness and value of the legislation without increasing its intrusiveness.

We would like to conclude by offering two specific suggestions:

  • There should be greater transparency and openness about the program.  As an example, we were not able to find any information on either the RCMP’s or Public Safety’s web sites about the number of registered offenders.  In contrast, the National DNA Data Bank publishes an Annual Report and its web site has up to date information on the number of profiles in the Data Bank; and
  • A formal evaluation of the effectiveness of the legislation and the Registry should be done by an independent third party.

Thank you for your time. We would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

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