Teresa Scassa - Blog

Friday, 08 February 2013 13:27

More on Privacy and Public Gun Permit Data

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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Recently I have blogged about the controversial interactive map created by the New York Journal News which showed the names and addresses of gun permit holders in two New York counties. I then followed this up with another posting about how the data on the map was substantially inaccurate. Both the map and its aftermath raise interesting issues about public data, open government and privacy rights.

This week, a New York court has given us more to think about on the issue of public government information and privacy. The New York Times sought access to an electronic copy of a database of the names and addresses of all residents of New York City who hold handgun licences. In Matter of New York Times Co. v. City of New York Police Dept., the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court denied disclosure of the database notwithstanding that the information it contains is a matter of public record. The court stated: “The fact that Penal Law §400.00(5) makes the name and address of a handgun license holder “a public record” is not dispositive of whether respondent can assert the privacy and safety exemptions to FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] disclosure.” The court went further, noting that this was so “especially when petitioners seek the names and addresses in electronic form.” It also indicated that other case law supported the view that the disclosure of a person’s home address “implicates a heightened privacy concern.”

This decision is an interesting one in that it tackles head on the thorny problem of what to do with public record information that includes the personal information (names and addresses) of individuals. When made available in electronic form, this information can be used to create all manner of information maps (among other things) that might generate far greater privacy concerns than the original government record. The infamous gun permit map is an example of this. Consider also the Proposition 8 map – a map that plotted the names, addresses and donation amounts of all contributors to a campaign to ban gay marriage in California.

Open government and open data principles favour the disclosure of government information in digital “re-usable” formats to serve a variety of public purposes which include promoting transparency and accountability. While access to information legislation generally permits a government department or agency to refuse disclosure of third party personal information in response to an access request, this limitation does not apply to information that is already part of a public record. In Canada, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (which governs the private sector use of personal information) creates exemptions to rules around the collection, use and disclosure of “publicly available information”. According to the regulations, this category of information expressly includes “personal information that appears in a registry collected under a statutory authority and to which a right of public access is authorized by law”. While it is true that the exemption is limited to instances “where the collection, use and disclosure of the personal information relate directly to the purpose for which the information appears in the registry”, given that the information appears in the registry for purposes of transparency and accountability, republishing the information would likely fit within those purposes. In any event, newspapers are largely exempt from the application of this law where personal information is collected, used or disclosed for journalistic purposes. The result is a significant gap in Canadian privacy law when it comes to public registry data.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is already aware of the problems that open government and open courts principles may raise when it comes to the electronic dissemination of “public record” information. For example, the Commissioner has issued guidelines to administrative tribunals to assist them in their decision-making around the online publication of decisions that might contain detailed personal information. Clearly the OPC is of the view that open online access can change the privacy equation.

Balancing the interests of open government and privacy is a significant challenge – and not an easy one. I doubt we have heard the last on this issue.


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