Teresa Scassa - Blog

Wednesday, 18 November 2020 11:29

It’s not you, it’s me? Why does the federal government have a hard time committing to the human right to privacy?

Written by  Teresa Scassa
Rate this item
(2 votes)

 

It’s been a busy privacy week in Canada. On November 16, 2020 Canada’s Department of Justice released its discussion paper as part of a public consultation on reform of the Privacy Act. On November 17, the Minister of Industry released the long-awaited bill to reform Canada’s private sector data protection legislation. I will be writing about both developments over the next while. But in this initial post, I would like to focus on one overarching and obvious omission in both the Bill and the discussion paper: the failure to address privacy as a human right.

Privacy is a human right. It is declared as such in international instruments to which Canada is a signatory, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Data protection is only one aspect of the human right to privacy, but it is an increasingly important one. The modernized Convention 108 (Convention 108+), a data protection originating with the Council of Europe but open to any country, puts human rights front and centre. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation also directly acknowledges the human right to privacy, and links privacy to other human rights. Canada’s Privacy Commissioner has called for Parliament to adopt a human rights-based approach to data protection, both in the public and private sectors.

In spite of all this, the discussion paper on reform of the Privacy Act is notably silent with respect to the human right to privacy. In fact, it reads a bit like the script for a relationship in which one party dances around commitment, but just can’t get out the words “I love you”. (Or, in this case “Privacy is a human right”). The title of the document is a masterpiece of emotional distancing. It begins with the words: “Respect, Accountability, Adaptability”. Ouch. The “Respect” is the first of three pillars for reform of the Act, and represents “Respect for individuals based on well established rights and obligations for the protection of personal information that are fit for the digital age.” Let’s measure that against the purpose statement from Convention 108+: “The purpose of this Convention is to protect every individual, whatever his or her nationality or residence, with regard to the processing of their personal data, thereby contributing to respect for his or her human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in particular the right to privacy.” Or, from article 1 of the GDPR: “This Regulation protects fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons and in particular their right to the protection of personal data.” The difference is both substantial and significant.

The discussion paper almost blurts it out… but again stops short in its opening paragraph, which refers to the Privacy Act as “Canada’s quasi-constitutional legal framework for the collection, use, disclosure, retention and protection of personal information held by federal public bodies.” This is the romantic equivalent of “I really, really, like spending time with you at various events, outings and even contexts of a more private nature.”

The PIPEDA reform bill which dropped in our laps on November 17 does mention the “right to privacy”, but the reference is in the barest terms. Note that Convention 108+ and the GDPR identify the human right to privacy as being intimately linked to other human rights and freedoms (which it is). Section 5 of the Bill C-11 (the Consumer Privacy Protection Act) talks about the need to establish “rules to govern the protection of personal information in a manner that recognizes the right to privacy of individuals with respect to their personal information and the need of organizations to collect, use or disclose personal information for purposes that a reasonable person would consider appropriate in the circumstances.” It is pretty much what was already in PIPEDA, and it falls far short of the statements quoted from Convention 108+ and the GDPR. In the PIPEDA context, the argument has been that “human rights” are not within exclusive federal jurisdiction, so talking about human rights in PIPEDA just makes the issue of its constitutionality more fraught. Whether this argument holds water or not (it doesn’t), the same excuse does not exist for the federal Privacy Act.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal (in which personal data was used to subvert democracy), concerns over uses of data that will perpetuate discrimination and oppression, and complex concerns over how data is collected and used in contexts such as smart cities all demonstrate that data protection is more than just about a person’s right to a narrow view of privacy. Privacy is a human right that is closely linked to the enjoyment of other human rights and freedoms. Recognizing privacy as a human right does not mean that data protection will not not require some balancing. However, it does mean that in a data driven economy and society we keep fundamental human values strongly in focus. We’re not going to get data protection right if we cannot admit these connections and clearly state that data protection is about the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms.

There. Is that so hard?

Login to post comments

Canadian Trademark Law

Published in 2015 by Lexis Nexis

Canadian Trademark Law 2d Edition

Buy on LexisNexis

Electronic Commerce and Internet Law in Canada, 2nd Edition

Published in 2012 by CCH Canadian Ltd.

Electronic Commerce and Internet Law in Canada

Buy on CCH Canadian

Intellectual Property for the 21st Century

Intellectual Property Law for the 21st Century:

Interdisciplinary Approaches

Purchase from Irwin Law