Canadian Privacy Requires Action Not Rhetoric

My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version; freely available hyperlinked version) focuses on comments last week from Prime Minister Paul Martin that the "question of civil rights is first and foremost in our minds" as the government prepares to introduce the lawful access initiative.

I note that while Canadians undoubtedly want to take Mr. Martin at his word, the state of Canadian privacy reveals another story.  In the days preceding Mr. Martin’ s comments, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada released two annual reports that paint a bleak picture of Canadian privacy – illustrating that Canadian policies are ill-equipped to deal with emerging technologies and cross-border trade practices.  When combined with the lawful access initiative, it is clear that a robust privacy framework requires action rather than rhetoric.

Lawful access is the most troubling development on the short-term horizon. The term itself unsettles many; it sounds benign while its purpose is not – the legislation would grant new, intrusive powers of surveillance to law-enforcement authorities without matching judicial oversight.

If lawful access presents the most immediate privacy threat, the Privacy Commissioner’ s annual reports – one for each of Canada’ s federal privacy laws – leaves little doubt that this is only the tip of a dangerous iceberg. The Commissioner’ s concerns include inadequate statutory enforcement powers, the challenges created by new technologies such as radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs), and a cross-border trade environment that often results in the transfer of personal information across borders with limited accountability and oversight.

Given these challenges, it appears that Canada is facing a privacy crisis that can only be resolved by instituting statutory reform that creates adequate privacy safeguards. If the Prime Minister of Canada is serious about prioritizing civil rights, then decisive action must follow his strong words.

One Comment

  1. Ian Chandler says:

    CIBC Customer and Shareholder
    As a Canadian, I once believed that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada was some type of safe-guarding institution protecting my privacy rights with a multi-million dollar, taxpayer based budget and all the nice amenities that go with it.

    I visited the Privacy Commissioner in Ottawa at my own expense to discuss a major breach of privacy with a senior investigator, a Mr. Kie Delgaty.

    Shunted into a miniscule room beside the receptionist, I was told that the revelations shared with this bureacrat represented “the largest breach of Canadians’ privacy” and that an investigation would commence.

    Holding your breath for the outcome? You’ll die waiting for anything out of the PCO. Each time I call to ask for the report, now 14 months since the meeting, I can’t reach the Investigator, the Investigator doesn’t return calls and the folks you’re talking with plead lack of funds, back-logged complaints and anything else they can think of.

    Want a direct answer? Good luck! Think PIPEDA has clout? Who knows. The PCO certainly doesn’t back it up with anything but platitudes and a wet noodle with which to soundly thrash transgressors.

    How about this for an agenda? Simply make it law that if you compromise your clients’ privacy, you have got to tell the innocent. Search California State Law SB1386 for an example of such simple, effective legislation.

    Action on this from the PCO? You guessed it. Zip, diddly, rien, nada, zero. Excuses for sucking up public money? As many as a fat bureaucrat can come up with.

    Want to stir the pot? Ask the PCO about breaches of privacy involving all major Canadian banks, as far back as 1991, into which Kie Delaty has probed on government time with taxpayers’ dollars.