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Code of Conduct

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Appearance by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada to Special Joint Committee on a Code of Conduct

February 4, 1997
Ottawa, Ontario

Bruce Phillips
Privacy Commissioner of Canada
(Check Against Delivery)

Thank you for inviting me to appear before you as you consider a code of conduct for Members, Senators and families. I do not propose to comment on whether elected officials should be subject to a code of conduct, that is for Parliament to decide. Rather, I will focus my remarks on the privacy implications.

It is clear that such a code would necessarily require collection of some personal information. The question then follows; what scheme would be put in place to protect any information that must be disclosed under the code.

Before dealing with this, and several related questions, I think it would be helpful to remind you of my role and the jurisdiction of the federal Privacy Act so that we do not lose sight of what is now in place and the Commissioner's part in that scheme.

The Privacy Commissioner is an Officer of Parliament, not an employee of the government of the day. This means I am an independent investigator, auditor and sometime-critic of federal government administration and legislation. My powers stem from the federal Privacy Act. That Act establishes individuals' right to see information about them and to ask to have any errors corrected.

However, the more vital component is its regulation of government collection, use and disclosure of personal information, the so-called fair information code. Individuals can complain to me if they are dissatisfied with an organization's handling of their access request, or if they believe government's collection, use or disclosure of personal information violates that fair information code.

I should underline that the Privacy Act applies only to the approximately 100 federal organizations named in the schedule. In the present context, the Code of Conduct, the Act does not apply at all. In fact, the act does not apply to Parliament or the courts, nor to Crown corporations, the federally-regulated private sector or provincial or municipal governments. And it is not a law of general application at the federal level, its confidentiality provisions may be overridden by any other Act of Parliament.

This is the limit of my freedom. So I am before you as a privacy resource, if you like. I hope to be able to give you a privacy perspective as you consider a code. The best place to begin is to set out those principles that are the foundation of the Privacy Act and virtually all comprehensive privacy law. These are the principles that should govern any collection of personal information.

  • an organization 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, and
  • information that is no longer needed should be disposed of securely.

The most important questions for you to consider are whether personal information needs to be collected at all; if so, what details should be collected, and then who will manage the information, including disclosures of that information, and under what rules. And, finally, will there be independent oversight and, if so, by whom?

I hope this gives you the background you need to consider the privacy aspects of the code and I am at your disposal to clarify, to amplify, and to answer your questions.

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