Many Canadians are justifiably concerned that the vast amounts of information they share with private sector companies – simply by going about their day-to-day activities – may end up in the hands of law enforcement or national security officials without their knowledge or consent. The channels through which vast amounts of personal data can flow from private sector hands to law enforcement with little transparency or oversight can turn the companies we do business with into informers and make us unwittingly complicit in our own surveillance.
A recent Finding of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) illustrates how the law governing the treatment of our personal information in the hands of the private sector has been adapted to the needs of the surveillance state in ways that create headaches for businesses and their customers alike. The Finding, which posted on the OPC site in November 2016 attempts to unravel a tangle of statutory provisions that should not have to be read by anyone making less than $300 per hour.
Basically, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) governs how personal information is collected, used and disclosed by private sector organizations at the federal level and in all provinces that do not have their own equivalent statutes (only Quebec, B.C. and Alberta do). One of the core principles of this statute is the right of access to one’s personal information. This means that individuals may ask to be informed about the existence, use and disclosure of their personal information in the hands of an organization. They must also be given access to that information on request. Without the right of access it would be difficult for us to find out whether an organization was in compliance with its privacy policies. The right of access also allows us to verify and request correction of any erroneous information.
Another core principle of PIPEDA is consent. This means that information about us should not be collected, used or disclosed without our consent. The consent principle is meant to give us some control over our personal information (although there are huge challenges in this age of overly-long, vague, and jargon-laden privacy policies).
The hunger for our personal information on the part of law enforcement and national security officials (check out these Telco transparency reports here, here and here) has led to a significant curtailment of both the principles of access and of consent. The law is riddled with exceptions that permit private sector companies to disclose our personal information to state authorities in a range of situations without our knowledge or consent, with or without a warrant or court order. Other exceptions allow these disclosures to be hidden from us if we make access requests. What this means is that, in some circumstances, organizations that have disclosed an individual’s information to state authorities, and that later receive an access request from the individual seeking to know if their information has been disclosed to a third party, must contact the state authority to see if they are permitted to reveal that information has been shared. If the state authority objects, then the individual is not told of the disclosure.
The PIPEDA Report of Findings No. 2016-008 follows a complaint by an individual who contacted her telecommunications company and requested access to her personal information in the hands of that company. Part of the request was for “any information about disclosures of my personal information, or information about my account or devices, to other parties, including law enforcement and other state agencies.” (at para 4). She received a reply from the Telco to the effect that it was “fully in compliance with subsections 9(2.1), (2.2), (2.3) and (2.4) of [PIPEDA].” (at para 5) In case that response was insufficiently obscure, the Telco also provided the wording of the subsections in question. The individual complained to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC).
The OPC decision makes it clear that the exceptions to the access principle place both the individual and the organization in a difficult spot. Basically, an organization that has disclosed information to state authorities without the individual’s knowledge or consent, and that receives an access request regarding this disclosure, must check with the relevant state authority to see if they have any objection to the disclosure of information about the disclosure. The state authorities can object if the disclosure of the disclosure would pose a threat to national security, national defence or the conduct of international affairs, or would adversely impact investigations into money laundering or terrorist financing. Beyond that, the state authorities can also object if disclosure would adversely impact “the enforcement of any law of Canada, a province or a foreign jurisdiction, an investigation relating to the enforcement of any such law, or the gathering of intelligence for the purpose of enforcing any such law.” If the state authorities object, then the organization may not disclose the requested information to the individual, nor can they disclose that they contacted the state authorities about the request, or that the authorities objected to any disclosure. In the interests of having a modicum of transparency, the organization must inform the Privacy Commissioner of the situation.
The situation is complex enough that in its finding, the OPC produced a helpful chart to guide organizations through the whole process. The chart can be found in the Finding.
In this case, the Telco justified its response to the complainant by explaining that if pushed further by a customer about disclosures, it would provide additional information, but even this additional information would be necessarily obscure. The Commissioner found that the Telco’s approach was not compliant with the law, but acknowledged that compliance with the law could mean that a determined applicant, by virtue of repeated requests over time, could come up with a pattern of responses that might lead them to infer whether information was actually disclosed, and whether the state authority objected to the disclosure. This is perhaps not what Parliament intended, but it does seem to follow from a reading of the statute.
As a result of the complaint, the Telco agreed to change its responses to access requests to conform to the requirements outlined in the table above.
It may well be that this kind of information-sharing offers some, perhaps significant, benefits to society, and that sharing information about information sharing could, in some circumstances, be harmful to investigations. The problem is that protections for privacy – including appropriate oversight and limitations – have not kept pace with the technologies that have turned private sector companies into massive warehouses of information about every detail of our lives and activities. The breakdown of consent means that we have little practical control over what is collected, and rampant information sharing means that our information may be in the hands of many more companies than those with which we actively do business. The imbalance is staggering, as is the risk of abuse. The ongoing review of PIPEDA must address these gaps issues – although there are also risks that it will result in the addition of more exceptions from the principles of access and consent.