The trouble with Canada’s Digital Privacy Act

Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian has been in the news this week, following her investigation into Canada’s practice of sharing personal (health) information stored by the Canadian Police Information Centre with U.S. border officials.

Cavoukian discovered – as reported by the CBC – that details of some 19,000 encounters between police services in Ontario and individuals struggling with mental illness have been uploaded to the CPIC database, to which the FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol have free access. The issue came to light late last year, when one Canadian woman was denied entry into the U.S., ostensibly because of her history of hospitalisation for depression and a suicide attempt.

“The untenable practice of automatic or blanket sharing of police information related to suicide threats or attempts simply cannot continue,” Cavoukian said, according to the CBC report.

While not everyone will agree with Cavoukian’s take on the issue, no one can deny that information sharing generally is a topic of contemporary concern: the Digital Privacy Act (Bill S-4) has also been in the news of late. Critics of the Harper government’s proposed legislation, such as Michael Geist, fear the bill could “massively expand warrantless disclosure of personal information.”

With regard to one of the provisions of Bill S-4, designed to update Canada’s private sector privacy legislation, Geist writes “organizations will be permitted to disclose personal information without consent (and without a court order) to any organization that is investigating a contractual breach or possible violation of any law. This applies [to] both past breaches or violations as well as potential future violations.”

The point here is not that Bill S-4 will make things worse for Canadians trying to cross the border. The effects of the Digital Privacy Act will be seen mainly in the private sector. But, if Geist is right, these digital-age updates to our privacy legislation could mean lots more work for Cavoukian and her federal counterpart.

It seems we are now living in a world where our information travels faster than we do, and faster than the laws designed to protect us (or not).

Tony Drake
Tony Drake
Initially trained as a Medical Doctor, Tony Drake is now a student at law with Aluvion. Tony's work focuses on medicine, technology, and the law. A father of three, Tony uses his limited free time to write unfinished novels.

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