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Accessing your personal information – federal government

Revised: July 2019

Overview

Canada has two federal privacy laws—the Privacy Act, which applies to federal government institutions, and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which applies to many private-sector organizations. Both give people a right to access their personal information held by organizations.

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How to access your personal information held by the federal government

The Privacy Act provides people with the general right to access information that is held about them by the federal government.

How do I ask for my personal information?

You can fill out a Personal Information Request form. You must send the form to the federal institution that holds your personal information. Direct it to the Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator of the institution holding the information.

Some institutions accept this access request form online. Information about how to submit a request online and a list of participating departments is available on the Government of Canada website.

Tips:

  • To determine which federal agency holds your personal information, consult Information about programs and information holdings, the public directory of federal government agencies.
  • In your request, identify yourself so that the government can be sure it is you, and not someone else, asking for your personal information.
  • Specify the personal information you are seeking. The more precise your request, the faster it can be answered. As well, the onus is on you to be specific enough so that the information can be retrieved.

Requests for access to information held by the federal government that is not personal information should be made under the Access to Information Act.

For more information, please see the website of the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada and the Access to Information Request Form on the Treasury Board Secretariat website.

What types of personal information can I ask for?

The Privacy Act defines “personal information” as any recorded information “about an identifiable individual.” It is important to provide sufficient detail to make the information reasonably retrievable such as:

  • the timeframe in which the information was created
  • any individuals, projects, groups or divisions that worked with the information
  • keywords associated with the information

Does it cost anything to access my personal information?

There is no charge to apply for personal information under the Privacy Act.

Can I get a paper copy of my personal information?

While you may receive a paper copy of the documents containing your personal information, the organization does not have to give you a copy under the law. Rather, they are required to give you access to your personal information. In some cases, you may be invited to go to the organization’s premises and view the material on site.

Tip: If you have a disability that requires a format other than paper or prevents you from accessing the material on site, you should advise the organization at the time of your access request.

How long should I expect the process to take?

The Privacy Act requires that federal institutions respond to access requests in a timely manner. Within 30 days of receiving a written access request, an institution must write back to say whether it will give access to the information and, if so, it must produce the information.

There are some circumstances in which the institution may be entitled to an extension of that time limit. For example, a federal institution may extend the response deadline by a maximum of 30 days if:

  • meeting the original time limit would unreasonably interfere with the institution’s operations
  • consultations are necessary to comply with the request and cannot reasonably be completed within the original time limit

The deadline may also be extended for a reasonable length of time if the personal information has to be translated or converted into an alternative format.

What if I find an error in my personal information?

Once you have received and reviewed the information, you can check that it is accurate and complete. If it is not, you may ask the department or agency to make corrections, additions or deletions. Where a requested correction is not made, you can ask that your personal information be so annotated. Corrections will not normally be made to opinions about you given by other individuals; in this case, a note may be added to set out your views on the matter.

To make a correction request, complete a Record Correction Form. Send your request to the Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator of the institution.

Can I obtain access to the personal information of someone else?

To obtain someone else’s personal information, you must submit their written consent authorizing you to receive their personal information. The consent must be signed and dated by the person giving the consent.

Can I receive the personal information of someone who has died?

Personal information can be released if an individual has been deceased for 20 years or more. You must provide reasonable proof of death.

In cases where a person has been dead for less than 20 years, only the executor or administrator of the estate, or liquidator of the succession may request the personal information. However, they may only access information that will allow them to fulfill their legal responsibilities.

Can a federal government institution deny my request for access?

There are limited and specific exemptions to the general right of access provided by the Privacy Act. For example, the head of an institution may refuse to provide access to personal information obtained in confidence from another government, or that relates to a police investigation.

What can I do if the institution denies part of, or my entire access request?

You can contact the Access to Information and Privacy officer at your institution. If you cannot resolve the issue, you can file a complaint with us.

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