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Looking back, moving forward: the Privacy Commissioner releases his 1999-2000 annual report

OTTAWA, May 16, 2000-Canadians should be concerned about the existence of a de facto citizen profile containing as many as 2,000 pieces of information about each of more than 30 million Canadians, says Privacy Commissioner of Canada Bruce Phillips in his 1999-2000 annual report. Phillips is referring to what he calls an "extraordinarily detailed database" in the custody of Human Resources Development Canada, known as the Longitudinal Labour Force File. The Labour Force File draws data from a wide variety of sources, including income tax records, and is maintained for possible "research" purposes.

Says Phillips, "Successive Privacy Commissioners have assured Canadians that there was no single federal government file, or profile about them. We were wrong-or not right enough for comfort" (pp. 64-70).

Other urgent issues highlighted in the report include:

  • Historical Census Records-Commenting on proposals to authorize retroactively the release of 1906 and 1911 census records despite previous promises of confidentiality, Phillips urges that such a measure " be approached with great caution, lest the result diminish confidence in government promises-not just in specific agencies, but also in government that professes to rule with the consent of the governed." In the summary of his comments before the expert panel that will make recommendations to the Minister of Industry on this matter, the Commissioner argues that privacy is not just an individual right but a public right; a right that should not be weakened without a broad public debate (pp. 52-56).
  • Misuse of the Social Insurance Number (SIN)-"A universal system of identification greatly increases governments' ability to gather information from various sources and assemble profiles, as well as to monitor and track an individual's behaviour. When the identifier is compulsory-almost unavoidable when it is widely used and required by all government departments and agencies-the identifier effectively becomes an 'internal passport' without which we are nobody." Commenting on the misuse of the SIN, Phillips expresses disappointment that the government has rejected the recent recommendation of a House of Commons Standing Committee, as well as the advice of previous committees, to set out in law who may use the SIN and for what purposes (pp. 57-60).
  • Protecting Health Information-"Patients' privacy is steadily eroding in the name of health research, ready access to personal information and administrative efficiency-and Canadians are the last to know." Phillips expresses concern that numerous projects to collect, share and use personal health information-projects that threaten to turn patients into objects of research-are proceeding while the repeated promises to protect patients' privacy have yet to be acted upon. Individual choice, Phillips argues, must be a cornerstone of health information and surveillance networks (pp. 32-42).
  • Complaints-The report includes selected cases from the 1,399 complaint investigations completed in 1999-2000, including a complaint involving an over enthusiastic RCMP officer who, in giving insurance companies the names of Alberta motorists ticketed for failing to wear a seatbelt, violated their privacy rights (pp. 112-114) and a complaint about the destruction of records relating to a harassment investigation by Revenue Canada officials (pp. 123-125). The latter complaint, Phillips maintains, demonstrates the need for a provision in the Privacy Act concerning the destruction of records to mirror the new offence under the Access to Information Act relating to the destruction of records for the purpose of frustrating access to information.

Reflecting on his tenure as Privacy Commissioner, Phillips notes that the annual report records many improvements-most notably, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (pp. 23-28)-but it also shows "how far we have yet to go in the ongoing battle to protect the right to a life free of surveillance and intrusion".

Also needed, according to Phillips, is an updated Privacy Act, the privacy legislation that applies to the federal public sector. Arguing that "in some important ways [it] imposes less rigorous standards on government than the new private sector bill does on Canadian business", Phillips urges Parliament to turn its attention to this critically important legislation that has not been revised for almost twenty years. The annual report highlights a few of the recommendations from the Office's review of the Privacy Act that the Privacy Commissioner believes are urgently needed to protect Canadians against a well-meaning, but sometimes overzealous, state (pp. 43-48).

The 1999-2000 Annual Report of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is available on our Web site at http://www.priv.gc.ca.

For more information, please contact Susan Wheeler at 613-943-5549 or 1-800-282-1376.

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