Teresa Scassa - Blog

Wednesday, 11 November 2015 08:17

Promoting Transparency While Protecting Privacy in Open Government In Canada

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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The rise of big data analytics, combined with a movement at all levels of government in Canada towards open data and the proactive disclosure of government information have created a context in which privacy interests are increasingly likely to conflict with the goals of transparency and accountability. In some cases these conflicts may be small and easily reconciled, but in other cases they may be more substantial. In addition, some means of reconciling the conflict must be found; where privacy and transparency conflict, for example, which value should prevail and under what conditions?

Conflicts between transparency and privacy have been seen recently in, for example, concerns expressed over the amount of personal information that might be found in court and tribunal decisions that are published online. Sunshine lists – lists of salaries of public employees that are over a certain amount – also raise issues. Provinces that publish such lists have tended to do so using file formats that do not lend themselves to easy digital manipulation. But of course these modest technological barriers are routinely overcome, and individual name and salary information is absorbed into the big data universe for purposes quite distinct from meeting a government’s transparency objectives. Open municipal data files may include information about specific individuals: for example, a database of all home renovation permit applications would have privacy implications for those individuals who applied for such permits. Even with names were redacted, it is easy enough to identify the owners of any homes for which renovation permits were obtained. In some cases, the level of connection may be less direct. For example, a public restaurant inspection record that cited kitchen staff at a small local restaurant for failure to wash their hands on a specific inspection date might indirectly reveal the identity of the persons who did not wash their hands, particularly if the staff of the restaurant is quite small. And, of course, in the big data context, even anonymized data, or data that is not personal information on its face, can be matched with other available data to identify specific individuals.

The point is not that the disclosure of such information must be avoided at all costs – rather, the issue is how to determine where to draw the line between privacy and transparency, and what steps might be taken to protect privacy while still ensuring transparency. No new legislative framework has been created to specifically guide the move towards open government in Canada, notwithstanding the fact that government data is fuel for the engines of big data.

In a paper that has just been published by the Alberta Law Review, my co-author Amy Conroy and I explore these issues, using a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision as a departure point for our analysis. Although the Court’s decision in Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services v Information and Privacy Commissioner (Ontario) (Ministry of Community Safety) does not specifically address either open data or proactive disclosure, the case nevertheless offers important insights into the gaps in both legislation and case law in this area.

In our paper we consider the challenges inherent in the release of government data and information either through pro-active disclosure or as open data. A key factor in striking the balance between transparency and privacy is the definition of personal information – information that is not personal information has no privacy implications. Another factor is, of course, the meaning given to the concept of transparency. Our paper considers how courts and adjudicators understand transparency in the face of competing claims to privacy. We challenge the simple equation of the release of information with transparency and argue that the coincidence of open government with big data requires new approaches that are informed by the developing relationship between privacy and transparency.

“Promoting Transparency While Protecting Privacy in Open Government in Canada” by Amy Conroy and Teresa Scassa is published in (2015) 53:1 Alberta Law Review 175-206. A pre-print version is available here.

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