Yesterday I appeared before the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, along with Professor David Lyon of Queen’s University and Professor Lisa Austin of the University of Toronto. The Committee is considering long overdue reform of the Privacy Act, and we had been invited to speak on this topic.
All three of us urged the Committee to take into account the very different technological environment in which we now find ourselves. Professor Lyon cogently addressed the changes brought about by the big data context. Although the Privacy Act as it currently stands largely address the collection, use and disclosure of personal information for “administrative purposes” all three of us expressed concerns over the access to and use by government of information in the hands of the private sector, and the use of information in big data analytics. Professor Austin in particular emphasized the need to address not just the need for accuracy in the data collected by government but also the need to assess “algorithmic accuracy” – the quality/appropriateness of algorithms used to analyse large stores of data and to draw conclusions or predictions from this data. She also made a clear case for bringing Charter considerations into the Privacy Act – in other words, for recognizing that in some circumstances information collection, disclosure or sharing that appears to be authorized by the Privacy Act might nevertheless violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There was also considerable discussion of information-sharing practices both within government and between our government and other foreign or domestic governments.
The Committee seemed very interested and engaged with the issues, which is a good sign. Reform of the Privacy Act will be a challenging task. The statute as a public sector data protection statute is sorely out of date. However, it is also out of context – in other words, it was drafted to address an information context that is radically different from that in which we find ourselves today. Many of the issues that were raised before the Committee yesterday go well beyond the original boundaries of the Privacy Act, and the addition of a few provisions or a few tweaks here and there will not come close to solving some of these privacy issues – many of which overlap with issues of private sector data protection, criminal law and procedure, and national security.
The notes related to my own remarks to the Committee are available below.
Written Notes for Comments by Professor Teresa Scassa to the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, June 14, 2016
Thank you for the opportunity to address this Committee on the issue of reform of the Privacy Act.
I have reviewed the Commissioner’s recommendations on Privacy Act reform and I am generally supportive of these proposals. I will focus my remarks today on a few specific issues that are united by the theme of transparency. Greater transparency with respect to how personal information is collected, used and disclosed by government enhances privacy by exposing practices to comment and review and by enabling appropriate oversight and accountability. At the same time, transparency is essential to maintaining public confidence in how government handles personal information.
The call for transparency must be situated within our rapidly changing information environment. Not only does technology now enable an unprecedented level of data collection and storage, enhanced analytic capacity has significantly altered the value of information in both public and private sectors. This increased value provides temptations to over-collect personal information, to share it, mine it or compile it across departments and sectors for analysis, and to retain it beyond the period required for the original purposes of its collection.
In this regard, I would emphasize the importance of the recommendation of the Commissioner to amend the Privacy Act to make explicit a “necessity” requirement for the collection of personal information, along with a clear definition of what ‘necessary’ means. (Currently, s. 4(1) of the Privacy Act requires only that personal information “relate directly to an operating program or activity of the institution”.) The goal of this recommendation is to curtail the practice of over-collection of personal information. Over-collection runs counter to the expectations of the public who provide information to government for specific and limited purposes. It also exposes Canadians to enhanced risks where negligence, misconduct or cyberattack result in data breaches. Data minimization is an important principle that is supported by data protection authorities around the world and that is reflected in privacy legislation. The principle should be explicit and up front in a reformed Privacy Act. Data minimization also has a role to play in enhancing transparency: not only do clear limits on the collection of personal information serve transparency goals; over-collection encourages the re-purposing of information, improper use and over-sharing.
The requirement to limit collection of information to specific and necessary purposes is tied to the further requirement on government to collect personal information directly from the individual “where possible” (s. 5(1)). This obviously increases transparency as it makes individuals directly aware of the collection. However, this requirement relates to information collected for an “administrative purpose”. There may be many other purposes for which government collections information, and these fall outside the privacy protective provisions of the Privacy Act. This would include circumstances that is disclosed to a government investigative body at its request in relation to an investigation or the enforcement of any law, or that is disclosed to government actors under court orders or subpoenas. Although such information gathering activities may broadly be necessary, they need to be considered in the evolving data context in which we find ourselves, and privacy laws must adapt to address them.
Private sector companies now collect vast stores of personal information, and this information often includes very detailed, core-biographical information. It should be a matter of great concern, therefore, that the permissive exceptions in both PIPEDA and the Criminal Code enable the flow of massive amounts of personal information from the private sector to government without the knowledge or consent of the individual. Such requests/orders are often (although not always) made in the course of criminal or national security investigations. The collection is not transparent to the individuals affected, and the practices as a whole are largely non-transparent to the broader public and to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC).
We have heard the most about this issue in relation to telecommunications companies, which are regularly asked or ordered to provide detailed information to police and other government agents. It should be noted, however, that many other companies collect personal information about individuals that is highly revelatory about their activities and choices. It is important not to dismiss this issue as less significant because of the potentially anti-social behaviour of the targeted individuals. Court orders and requests for information can and do encompass the personal information of large numbers of Canadians who are not suspected of anything. The problem of tower dump warrants, for example, was recently highlighted in a recent case before the Ontario Supreme Court (R. v. Rogers Communication (2016 ONSC 70))(my earlier post on this decision can be found here). The original warrant in that case sought highly detailed personal information of around 43,000 individuals, the vast majority of whom had done nothing other than use their cell phones in a certain area at a particular time. Keep in mind that the capacity to run sophisticated analytics will increase the attractiveness of obtaining large volumes of data from the private sector in order to search for an individual linked to a particular pattern of activity.
Without adequate transparency regarding the collection of personal information from the private sector, there is no way for the public to be satisfied that such powers are not abused. Recent efforts to improve transparency (for example, the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development’s voluntary transparency reporting guidelines) have focused on private sector transparency. In other words, there has been an attempt to provide a framework for the voluntary reporting by companies of the number of requests they receive from government authorities, the number they comply with, and so on. But these guidelines are entirely voluntary, and they also only address transparency reporting by the companies themselves. There are no legislated obligations on government actors to report in a meaningful way – whether publicly or to the OPC – on their harvesting of personal information from private sector companies. I note that the recent attempt by the OPC to audit the RCMP’s use of warrantless requests for subscriber data came to an end when it became clear that the RCMP did not keep specific records of these practices.
In my view, a modernization of the Privacy Act should directly address this enhanced capacity of government institutions to access the vast stores of personal information in the hands of the private sector. The same legislation that permits the collection of personal information from private sector companies should include transparency reporting requirements where such collection takes places. In addition, legislative guidance should be provided on how government actors who obtain personal information from the private sector either by request or under court order should deal with this information. Specifically, limits on the use and retention of this data should be imposed.
It is true that both the Criminal Code and PIPEDA enable police forces and investigative bodies under both federal and provincial jurisdiction to obtain personal information from the private sector under the same terms and conditions, and that reform of the Privacy Act in this respect will not address transparency and accountability of provincial actors. This suggests that issues of transparency and accountability of this kind might also fruitfully be addressed in the Criminal Code and in PIPEDA, but this is no reason not to also address it in the Privacy Act. To the extent that government institutions are engaged in the indirect collection of personal information, the Privacy Act should provide for transparency and accountability with respect to such activities.
Another transparency issue raised by the Commissioner relates to information-sharing within government. Technological changes have made it easier for government agencies and departments to share personal information – and they do so on what the Commissioner describes as a “massive” scale. The Privacy Act enables personal information sharing within and between governments, domestically and internationally, in specific circumstances – for investigations and law enforcement, for example, or for purposes consistent with those for which it was collected. (Section 8(2)(a) allows for sharing “for the purpose for which the information was obtained or compiled by the institution or for a use consistent with that purpose”). Commissioner Therrien seeks amendments that would require information-sharing within and between governments to take place according to written agreements in a prescribed form. Not only would this ensure that information sharing is compliant with the legislation, 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 – or whether and under what conditions their personal information may be shared with provincial or foreign governments.
Another important transparency issue is mandatory data breach reporting. Treasury Board Secretariat currently requires that departments inform the OPC of data security breaches; yet the Commissioner has noted that not all comply. As a result, he is asking that the legislation be amended to include a mandatory breach notification requirement. Parliament has recently amended PIPEDA to include such a requirement. Once these provisions take effect, the private sector will be held to a higher standard than the public sector unless the Privacy Act is also amended. Any amendments to the federal Privacy Act to address data security breach reporting would have to take into account the need for both the Commissioner and for affected individuals to be notified where there has been a breach that meets a certain threshold for potential harm, as will be the case under PIPEDA. The PIPEDA amendments will also require organizations to keep records of all breaches of security safeguards regardless of whether they meet the harm threshold that triggers a formal reporting requirement. Parliament should impose a requirement on those bodies governed by the Privacy Act to both keep and to submit records of this kind to the OPC. Such records would be helpful in identifying patterns or trends either within a single department or institution or across departments or institutions. The ability to identify issues proactively and to address them either where they arise or across the federal government can only enhance data security – something which is becoming even more urgent in a time of increased cybersecurity threats.