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Bill C-68, the Firearms Act

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Notes for an appearance before the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs

November 2, 1995
Ottawa, Ontario

Bruce Phillips
Privacy Commissioner of Canada
(Check against delivery

I appreciate the chance to appear before this committee to address the important privacy issues flowing from Bill C-68.

By way of background, let me remind you of my role. As Privacy Commissioner, I function as an ombudsman, a critic and an auditor. As you know, to guarantee the independence of my work, I am an Officer of Parliament, not an employee of the government of the day.

Simply put, my job is to ensure that federal government institutions comply with the Privacy Act. The Act regulates the collection, use and disclosure of personal information by about 110 government institutions. The Act also establishes the right of individuals to see files about themselves, and to ask that incorrect information on those files be corrected. The Act also sets standards for the retention and disposal of personal information by those departments and agencies. Individuals can complain to me if they feel their privacy rights under the Act have been violated.

The collection provisions of the Act are among its most important protections. They serve a gatekeeping function, limiting the flow of personal information that is not needed for the legitimate functions of government. The collection provisions of the Act prohibit a government institution from collecting personal information unless the information relates directly to an operating program or activity of the institution. This generally means that the institution must have Parliamentary authority for the relevant program and an administrative need for each piece of information collected in order to carry out the program or activity.

I am not here today to offer any opinion as to whether Parliament should or should not enact this legislation. I am not an authority on the contents of the Bill. My interest rests solely with the degree of privacy protection afforded to any information collected under this Bill, just as with any other Act of Parliament.

This Bill contains several provisions that allow for the collection, use and disclosure of personal information. Much of that information is highly sensitive. The processes established in Bill C-68 to handle such information must respect basic principles of fair information practices. These principles are woven into the very fabric of the Privacy Act, international instruments on data protection, and the privacy codes of countries around the world.

The personal information collected under the authority of this firearms legislation should, at a minimum, comply with these principles. Given the great sensitivity of some of the information that will be collected under Bill C-68, I urge you to consider the limits imposed by the Privacy Act on collection, use and disclosure, for example, only as minimum standards. The Bill, or regulations made under it, may well need to impose additional restrictions in light of the sensitivity of the information and the concerns of some Canadians about the information falling into the wrong hands.

Let me remind you of the main privacy principles that should form the minimum standards for collecting personal information under the Bill:

  • a government institution should collect only the information it needs to operate its programs
  • the information should be collected directly from the individual wherever possible
  • the individual should be told the purpose of the collection
  • all reasonable steps should be taken to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information
  • the information should be kept long enough to allow a person access to it
  • the information should be used only for the purposes for which it was collected, or for a use consistent with that purpose
  • the information should be disclosed only for the purpose for which it was obtained or for a use consistent with that purpose
  • the information should be protected against unintentional disclosure by appropriate security measures
  • information that is no longer needed should be disposed of securely.

The uses to which this sensitive information should be put, and the permissible disclosures of the information, should be spelled out clearly in the legislation or regulations. The list of permissible uses and disclosures should be exhaustive. No other uses or disclosures should be allowed.

The personal information handling practices involved in administering Bill C-68 should, to the extent constitutionally possible, fall under the Privacy Act. The Bill should state very clearly that this information falls under the protective umbrella of the Privacy Act.

In one sense, it is premature for me to appear before you now. Many privacy issues that flow from this Bill will be dealt with by regulation, for example, what information will be collected for a licence, where the information will be kept, for how long, to whom it will be accessible. The regulations will therefore contain the heart of the privacy issues arising under the Bill.

The Commissioner of the RCMP will appoint a Registrar of firearms, who will establish and maintain a registry. The registry will keep records of every licence and registration certificate that is issued or revoked by the Registrar, every application that is refused, certain transfers of firearms, certain exports and imports, and every loss, finding, theft or destruction of a firearm and "such other matters as may be prescribed".

That is quite a shopping list of personal information. Add to that the regulation-making powers of the Governor in Council set out in the Bill. These include the power to make regulations regarding:

  • the operations of the Canadian Firearms Registry
  • the keeping and destruction of records
  • the creation of offences regarding a contravention of regulations, which could include contraventions of regulatory provisions on the handling of personal information
  • the sending or issuance of notice and documents in electronic form.

Among the many privacy questions that arise from Bill C-68 are the following:

  • what personal information will be collected under Bill C-68?
  • what happens to the information filed at the local level in order to get a licence or registration? Where will it be kept? How will computerized filing systems operate?
  • who will have access to this personal information?

To ground Bill C-68 in a strong scheme of privacy protection, I am therefore making two recommendations:

  1. That personal information collected, used and disclosed under authority of Bill C-68 be subject at a minimum to the fair information handling provisions of the Privacy Act, and that the Bill clearly state this; it should of course be open to Parliament to introduce even stricter controls than those set out in the Privacy Act;
  2. That my office be consulted during the development or subsequent amendment of any regulations under Bill C-68 that have a bearing on the handling of personal information. I am pleased that regulations must be placed before Parliament. As well, my office has already met with the Firearms Control Task Force of the Department of Justice, and I understand that we will be consulted as the national registration system develops.

Again, I appreciate your invitation to appear today, and will be pleased to answer any questions.

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