TORONTO – Government On-Line (GOL) is a cost-saving exercise that threatens government accountability, an Information and Privacy Commission of Ontario policy advisor said Wednesday.
“Government On-Line is a submission to the God of efficiency – bring costs down,” Mike Gurski, the commission’s senior policy/technical advisor on policy and compliance, told an audience at the Security & Privacy For Government On-Line Conference. Paraphrasing University of Toronto professor Janice Stein, Gurski said such a devotion to financial savings could be dangerous. “By submitting to the God of efficiency, you often dethrone the God of accountability,” he said.
Gurski said governments, as custodians of personal information, need to address the impact on privacy of a given technology and ensure citizens hold control of their own data.
“Citizens must remain in control. As soon as you lose that, citizens will lose trust,” Gurksi said. He added 14 per cent of Australians have decided they will not do business with government online because of privacy concerns, while 59 per cent said they would better trust an organization if they had control of the use of their personal information.
Prince Edward Island CIO Bill Drost, who sat with Gurski on the panel, entitled Gaining Confidence and Trust from Canadian Citizens in Government On-Line, shared Gurski’s belief in the importance of safeguarding citizen information.
Drost pointed to privacy and security lapses such as the September 2000 shooting of Le Journal de Montreal journalist Michel Auger, whose assailants were allegedly tipped off to his whereabouts by a government employee with access to Auger’s license plate information. But he stopped short of agreeing with Gurksi’s assertions that GOL is sacrificing accountability for efficiency.
He said this is in part because he is doubtful of government accountability before GOL and in part because of his job requires him to view the situation different from Gurksi
“I’m looking at it from the CIO point of view, which is to get the job done,” Drost said.
Still, Gurksi listed a number of threats to privacy as governments become more and more devoted to technology. These include fractured data and the Big Brother reality of constant surveillance.
“Technology will become an integrated part of everything we see and hear,” he said, adding that chip implants in citizens are an increasingly likely reality. “That’s the way technology is heading.”
He also decried the business-like approach of the Ontario government in particular, citing the commodification of human relationships as a major threat to privacy.
“That commodification, you have to watch out for,” he said. “When you create consumers in relationship to your government, you destroy citizenship.”
Gurksi said governments can build trust among their citizens by collecting only necessary information, limiting use of that information to identified purposes, maintaining an openness about policies, providing citizens with the access and ability to challenge compliance and restricting employee access to sensitive information.
Gurski said governments can learn how to get by with less personal information from the private sector, where privacy has become a competitive advantage, though Drost argued governments are more accountable than private businesses as the need to be re-elected every four or five years.
However, Drost did not discount the need for improvement in the public sector and suggested that all provincial governments should follow the federal government lead and do security checks before hiring new employees. He cited research from the Computer Security Institute claiming only six per cent of IT security threat come from viruses and outsider attacks combined, while dishonest and disgruntled employees account for 19 per cent of threats.
PEI does not currently do security checks before hiring new employees, nor does the province have a privacy law on the books, though legislation for such a law is expected to be proclaimed in January.
Drost also acknowledged the privacy issues surrounding GOL are similar to those in other areas of governance and stressed these issues should be determining GOL plans.
“In regards to privacy versus GOL, privacy is a much broader public policy issue,” he said. “Privacy is the dog that should be wagging GOL and not the other way around.”