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Letter to the Minister of National Revenue

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The Privacy Commissioner of Canada, George Radwanski, sent the following letter to the Honourable Elinor Caplan, Minister of National Revenue, regarding changes to what the Commissioner has previously described as the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency's "Big Brother" database. April 9, 2003

Dear Minister Caplan:

Your announcement today of major policy changes regarding the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency's new six-year passenger information database is an important moment in the history of privacy protection in Canada.

These changes very substantially address the concerns expressed by myself and many others.

They effectively eliminate the use of this information - about all the foreign travel activities of all law-abiding Canadians - for fishing expeditions such as identifying everyone who has travelled to a particular country a certain number of times, or routinely accessing travel profiles of individuals for tax review purposes. They eliminate meal and health information outright. And they very significantly limit the use and sharing of personal information about travel activities.

This is a great victory for the privacy rights of all Canadians.

It would, of course, be preferable from a privacy perspective not to have this database at all, or to have it absolutely restricted to anti-terrorism purposes. But your announced changes strike a fair and reasonable balance between the responsibilities of CCRA and the privacy rights of Canadians.

The information is now to be kept only for purposes that are consistent with the CCRA's mandate, particularly with regard to maintaining border security against terrorism, and it is to be used and shared only subject to appropriate limitations and safeguards.

You have demonstrated that you are sensitive to the importance of privacy rights in Canadian society, and for this I am deeply appreciative. Your announcement on behalf of the Government also demonstrates that the Canadian approach to privacy protection, based on an ombudsman model that combines behind-the-scenes persuasion with recourse to public debate and other initiatives when necessary, is a very good and effective one.

The combined effect of all your policy changes is to transform the CCRA database from an open-ended, unrestricted intrusion on privacy into a much more nuanced, restrained and appropriate instrument. Once again thank you, and please convey my appreciation as well to CCRA Commissioner Rob Wright and to other senior Government officials for their part in having achieved this favourable outcome that will benefit all Canadians.

Yours sincerely,

(Original signed by)

George Radwanski
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

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