Technology has enabled the collection and sharing of personal information on a massive scale, and governments have been almost as quick as the private sector to hoover up as much of it as they can. They have also been as fallible as the private sector – Canada’s federal government, for example, has a substantial number of data breaches in the last few years.
What has not kept pace with technology has been the legislation in place to protect privacy. Canada’s federal Privacy Act, arguably a ground-breaking piece of legislation when it was first enacted in 1983, has remained relatively untouched throughout decades of dramatic technological change. Despite repeated calls for its reform, the federal government has been largely unwilling to update this statute that places limits on its collection, use and disclosure of personal information. This may be changing with the new government’s apparent openness to tackling the reform of both this statute and the equally antiquated Access to Information Act. This is good news for Canadians, as each of these statutes has an important role to play in holding a transparent government accountable for its activities.
On March 10, 2016 Federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien appeared before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, which is considering Privacy Act reform. The Commissioner’s statement identified some key gaps in the statute and set out his wish list of reforms.
As the Commissioner pointed out, technological changes have made it easier for government agencies and departments to share personal information – and they do so on what he describes as a “massive” scale. The Privacy Act currently has little to offer to address these practices. Commissioner Therrien is seeking amendments that would require information sharing within the government to take place according to written agreements in a prescribed form. Not only would this ensure that information sharing is compliant with legal obligations to protect privacy, it would offer a measure of transparency to a public that has a right to know whether and in what circumstances information they provide to one agency or department will be shared with another.
The Commissioner is also recommending that government institutions be explicitly required under the law to safeguard the personal information in their custody, and to report data breaches to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. It may come as a surprise to many Canadians that such a requirement is not already in the statute – its absence is a marker of how outdated the law has become. Since 2014, the Treasury Board of Canada, in its Directive on Privacy Practices has imposed mandatory breach reporting for all federal government institutions, but this is not a legislated requirement, nor is there recourse to the courts for non-compliance.
The Commissioner is also seeking more tools in his enforcement toolbox. Under the Privacy Act as it currently stands, the Commissioner may make recommendations to government institutions regarding their handling of personal information. These recommendations may then be ignored. While he notes that “in the vast majority of cases, government departments do eventually agree to implement our recommendations”, it is clear that this can be a long, drawn out process with mixed results. Currently, the only matters that can be taken to court for enforcement are denials by institutions to provide individuals with access to their personal information. The Commissioner is not seeking the power to directly compel institutions to comply with its recommendations; rather, he recommends that an institution that receives recommendations from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner have two choices. They may implement the recommendations or they may go to court for a declaration that they do not need to comply. On this model, relatively prompt compliance would presumably become the default.
The Commissioner is also seeking an amendment that would require government institutions to conduct privacy impact assessments before the launch of a new program or where existing programs are substantially modified. Again, you would think this would be standard practice by now. It does happen, but the Commissioner diplomatically describes current PIAs as being “sometimes uneven” in both their quality and timeliness. The Commissioner would also like to see a legislated requirement that government bills that will have an impact on privacy be sent to the OPC for review before being tabled in Parliament.
The Commissioner seeks additional amendments to improve transparency in relation to the government’s handling of personal information. Currently, the Commissioner files an annual report to Parliament. He may also issue special reports. The Commissioner recommends that he be empowered under the legislation “to report proactively on the practices of government”. He also recommends extending the Privacy Act to all government institutions. Some are currently excluded, including the Prime Minister’s Office and the offices of Ministers. He also recommends allowing all individuals whose personal information is in the hands of a federal government institution to have a right of access to that information (subject, of course, to the usual exceptions). Currently on Canadian citizens and those present in Canada have access rights.
This suite of recommendations is so reasonable that most Canadians would be forgiven for assuming these measures were already in place. Given the new government’s pre- and post-election commitments to greater transparency and accountability, there may be reason to hope we will finally see the long-overdue reform of the Privacy Act.