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Interim Privacy Commissioner discusses Annual Report before Committee

(OTTAWA) September 22, 2003 - The Interim Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Robert Marleau, made the following statement today before the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates of the House of Commons regarding his Office's recently tabled 2002-2003 Annual Report to Parliament:

"The Annual Report covers a period ending in March, 2003. I was appointed Privacy Commissioner in July. In my foreword to the Report, I've noted the apparent anomaly of this-I am reporting on work for which I cannot take any credit. I cannot even really speak to the substance of the report, at least those parts that deal with specific complaints and incidents under the Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. These reflect the findings and conclusions of my predecessor.

Having said that, I want to stress that I do take a measure of pride and satisfaction in this Annual Report, because it is the product of talented and dedicated individuals with whom I am pleased to be associated.

I was appointed to this position on an interim basis, to lead the Office through the process of rebuilding itself and restoring its credibility. My main priorities since taking up my duties have been bringing some order and stability to the Office and repairing its relationship with Parliament. The latter includes making myself available to Parliament in what I consider to be the appropriate role for this Office, providing advice on critical privacy issues and drawing Parliament's attention to the privacy implications of legislative and regulatory initiatives. So, for example, last Thursday I appeared before the House Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration to comment on the question of whether Canadians need a national identity card.

As for rebuilding the Office, I'm encouraged that employees remain committed to and enthusiastic about the goal of protecting privacy. Once we know the results of the audits by the Public Service Commission and the Auditor General, we will proceed to implement their recommendations. That will help to give staff the proper structure and support they need to do their jobs.

Another priority has been gearing up for the full implementation of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act as of January 1, 2004. As of that date, the Act will apply to all commercial activity in Canada, except where substantially similar provincial legislation has been enacted. As noted in this Annual Report, in 2002 we received 300 complaints under the Act, compared to slightly more than 100 in 2001. Complaints are increasing as the coverage of the Act extends and also, we suspect, as more people become aware of their rights under the legislation. The major expansion of the Act's application in 2004 will likely lead to a proportionate increase in our complaint caseload.

Although my appointment is only for six months, I don't see myself as just a caretaker. We have a number of challenging policy issues in front of us.

Last Thursday, as I mentioned, I appeared before the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration to discuss Minister Coderre's proposal for a national identification card. I'm not here today to give a repeat performance, but I will simply mention that I advised the Committee that, in our view, the marginal benefits of a national identification card system do not justify the huge financial and social costs that it would entail.

We are also continuing to look very critically at the issue of video surveillance. This is something that raises a number of concerns from a privacy perspective. But I am prepared to listen to people who believe that there is a role for video surveillance. In fact, I have spoken with Commissioner Zaccardelli of the RCMP about this, and we have agreed to work together to see how, in specific situations where video surveillance may be justified, the privacy impacts can be minimized. My Office has also been invited by the Chair of La Commission d'accès à l'information du Québec, to attend, as registered observers, her public consultations on this issue in Montreal and Quebec.

An important development in the past year that is mentioned in the Report was the introduction of the Treasury Board's new policy on privacy impact assessments.

A privacy impact assessment, or PIA, is an assessment of how, and how much, a program or activity affects the privacy of individuals. The Treasury Board's new policy makes PIAs a condition of funding for all new, substantially redesigned, or electronically driven programs and services that collect, use, or disclose personal information. This means that government institutions will have to look at privacy right from the outset, from the moment they begin planning a new program. Questions of whether a program or project has a negative effect on privacy will be asked before any privacy violation occurs. This is a sensible approach, since privacy, once violated, can't be given back.

This policy is welcome, but I would like to take this opportunity to point out that it is still just that-a policy. I would like to see it made more robust and permanent, so that it would not be something that would be dependent on the good will of the Treasury Board. If and when Parliament looks to amending the Privacy Act-something that is arguably long overdue, since the Act has not been significantly amended since it was passed 20 years ago-I would recommend that the government consider giving PIAs the force of law.

I'm hopeful that this Annual Report, and our appearance here today, mark a first step towards regaining the confidence of Parliament and our stakeholders-including, of course, all those who look to our Office for the protection of their privacy rights."

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For more information, please contact:

Anne-Marie Hayden
Media Relations
Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
Tel: (613) 995-0103

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