Canadians are concerned about the privacy of information their governments gather about them, but they are willing to accept some sharing of information if it will help governments function more efficiently, concluded a report released this week by a government-backed study group. But privacy advocates
said the report reflects government officials’ wishes more than citizens’ concerns.
The final report of the Crossing Boundaries National Council said citizens want to be asked before information about them is shared among different agencies or levels of government, and they believe governments should educate and inform them about the use of their personal information.
Privacy advocates are skeptical. John Lawford, research analyst at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa, said the report smacks of an attempt to water down the principle that citizens must explicitly consent to any use of personal information beyond the purpose for which it was originally collected. That principle is explicit in the Personal Information Privacy and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), and Don Lenihan, chair of the Crossing Boundaries council, acknowledged it is the “de facto rule for governments as it stands.”
Obtaining consent for information sharing to facilitate simple transactions presents few problems, Lenihan said, but for governments to do more ambitious things such as improving the health-care system, “if government had to get your consent every time they wanted to use (personal information) in a new way, they’d be calling you every five minutes.”
The strict consent approach was probably adequate when most information was paper-based, Lenihan said, but is becoming an obstacle. As an alternative, the report advocated setting rules for information-sharing in certain areas, such as health, rather than requiring explicit consent.
“I think privacy legislation is regarded as a pain in the butt in the government,” Lawford responded. “I don’t know exactly where they’re headed, except that they’re finding consent to be annoying and they’d like to get rid of it.”
The Crossing Boundaries National Council was set up about two years ago. It is made up of elected officials and senior bureaucrats from the federal government and the 10 provinces, along with representatives of territorial and municipal governments and Aboriginals.
Its recommendations were based on consultations with “nearly 200 elected officials, experts and practitioners from the public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as nearly 80 ‘ordinary citizens’ across Canada,” according to the report. Consultation with the public took the form of four discussion groups – a group of 15 people met in Ottawa, senior citizens in Ottawa and Fredericton met by videoconference, high-school students in Ottawa, Edmonton and St. John’s also met by videoconference, and a group of Toronto high-school students conducted research and made a recommendation to the council.
Lawson called the consultations on which the report was based “not a terribly large sample size.”
Darrell Evans, executive director of the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said the public consultations are not a valid poll and the results of the other consultations were predictable. “I mean, 200 elected government officials and bureaucrats basically, of course they’re going to agree – they’re the ones who want to share the information,” Evans said.
Lenihan acknowledged the consultations were not a scientific survey, but said they indicate that citizens are more willing to consider looser restrictions on how their personal information is used when they consider the possibility of improving government service.
“If you just ask citizens in isolation, can government share your personal information?” he said, “you can almost bet they’ll say no.”
While the council referred to a dichotomy between the view of personal information as personal property and as a public resource, Evans called that view a red herring. “No privacy advocate is arguing that personal information is private property.” He said the report failed to address privacy as a human right.
The report proposed creating a new Council of Ministers to oversee the use of technology to improve services and promote “information as a public resource.” It said this council should champion “citizen-centred government” and promote the idea that government information is “a critical new public resource to build our economy, develop better policy and improve the quality of life of Canadians, and that governments are the stewards of it.”
It also urged governments to ensure citizens are informed about how governments plan to use their information, and perhaps create a Charter of Information laying out how personal information might be used.
The group also suggested a meeting of first ministers to develop an action plan for citizen-centred policy, programs and service delivery. Lenihan said “citizen-centred” refers to eliminating duplication and conflict among government rules and providing a single, streamlined process for processes such as obtaining a licence.
While the report talks about the convenience that might be gained from looser restrictions on information sharing in areas such as health care, Lawford said, “it doesn’t really say much about using the information for police or spy agencies.”
Evans said experience shows that the more information governments have, the more they want to do with it. “I fear those who don’t fear government,” he said.