Radwanski’s replacement: Who fits the bill?

Canada’s privacy community can agree about one thing regarding George Radwanski’s successor: they wouldn’t want to be on the search committee.

Radwanski, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner, resigned late Monday amid a storm of

controversy over reports of lavish travel spending, questionable staffing and management practices and allegedly misleading a parliamentary committee that was reviewing his work. The final draft of the committee’s report is expected on Wednesday.

At press time, the federal government had not announced an interim replacement for Radwanski, who refused all interviews. But his departure comes at a critical juncture in the history of legislation that will govern the way Canadian enterprises manage valuable customer data. The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), will enter its third and final implementation phase on Jan. 1, 2004, when organizations across the country are expected to be compliant. Several provinces, including Ontario and Alberta, have bills of their own that are still under debate and other provincial legislation, like Quebec’s, is poorly understood. In September of next year, Radwanski’s replacement will be thrust into the spotlight when the Privacy Commissioner’s office hosts the International Conference of Privacy and Data Protection Commissioners in Ottawa.

“”This whole situation is regrettable,”” said Andrew Foti, a lawyer and privacy expert with Toronto-based Gowlings Lafleur Henderson LLP. “”There was already a considerable degree of work to do and a lack of readiness. This whole set of circumstances has introduced a degree of uncertainty and churn which is not going to advance the cause.””

Stephanie Perrin, who helped draft PIPEDA and is now working as a private consultant, said Radwanski’s claims he was ousted has hit home with some members of the privacy community.

“”We’re all deeply concerned that they’re going to replace him with some kind of caretaker,”” said Perrin, who praised Radwanski’s stance on video surveillance and the airline database. “”If this is interpreted by folks as sanctioning a quieter, gentler privacy commissioner, I don’t think that’s what we need right now.””

There is no standard work experience that immediately qualifies a candidate to the Privacy Commissioner post. Some provincial privacy commissioners have a legal background. Radwanski, apart from public sector consulting work, was best known as an editor at the Toronto Star. His predecessor, Bruce Philips, was also a journalist. British Columbia’s first Privacy Commissioner, David Flaherty, was an historian.

“”I would think there would be a distinct shortage of volunteers for a temporary appointment,”” said David Paterson, executive director of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) in Ottawa. “”Managing what will be a fairly difficult extension of the application of PIPEDA to the provinces and dealing with substantially similar laws is a non-trivial exercise.””

Richard Rosenberg, an executive vice-president with lobby group Electronic Frontier Canada, said a successor would have to do a better job of promoting privacy outside the usual public sector circles.

“”He was very circumspect about his statements. He went to conferences, he met with experts in the field, and then he went back to Ottawa,”” he said. “”I think what was really needed was some awareness.””

Darrell Evans, executive director or B.C.’s Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, said legal training may be necessary to handle the job’s complexity.

“”(Radwanski’s) lack of depth on privacy issues is part of the reason he was so loath to communicate in depth to so many people,”” he said. “”He was in and out of his speeches pretty fast.””

Paterson said any successor should be focused on achieving uniformity between federal and provincial laws, as well as laws that are compatible with international standards and that are relatively easy to understand. “”We don’t want a situation where you get the Ontario privacy legislation, which is 125 pages long, and you need three lawyers to read it,”” he said.

Sources suggest the next Privacy Commissioner will come from within the public sector, given the needs to communicate between so many levels of government.

“”You want someone who knows how Ottawa works, but not someone so co-opted that he or she will limit what they do because they know what will happen if you push this far, or do that,”” said Rosenberg.

Evans said outside possibilities include Valarie Steeves, National Privacy Coalition and Perrin.

“”I think the most vital thing is to steer away from big egos,”” he said. “”It really gets in the way of the job.””

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