Teresa Scassa - Blog

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This is the second post in a series on Bill C-27, a bill introduced in Parliament in June 2022 to reform Canada's private sector data protection law. The first post, on consent provisions, is found here.

In a data-driven economy, data protection laws are essential to protect privacy. In Canada, the proposed Consumer Privacy Protection Act in Bill C-27 will, if passed, replace the aging Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) to govern the collection, use and disclosure of personal information by private sector organizations. Personal information is defined in Bill C-27 (as it was in PIPEDA) as “information about an identifiable individual”. The concept of identifiability of individuals from information has always been an important threshold issue for the application of the law. According to established case law, if an individual can be identified directly or indirectly from data, alone or in combination with other available data, then those data are personal information. Direct identification comes from the presence of unique identifiers that point to specific individuals (for example, a name or a social insurance number). Indirect identifiers are data that, if combined with other available data, can lead to the identification of individuals. To give a simple example, a postal code on its own is not a direct identifier of any particular individual, but in a data set with other data elements such as age and gender, a postal code can lead to the identification of a specific individual. In the context of that larger data set, the postal code can constitute personal information.

As the desire to access and use more data has grown in the private (and public) sector, the concepts of de-identification and anonymization have become increasingly important in dealing with personal data that have already been collected by organizations. The removal of both direct and indirect identifiers from personal data can protect privacy in significant ways. PIPEDA did not define ‘de-identify’, nor did it create particular rules around the use or disclosure of de-identified information. Bill C-11, the predecessor to C-27, addressed de-identified personal information, and contained the following definition:

de-identify means to modify personal information — or create information from personal information — by using technical processes to ensure that the information does not identify an individual or could not be used in reasonably foreseeable circumstances, alone or in combination with other information, to identify an individual

This definition was quite inclusive (information created from personal information, for example, would include synthetic data). Bill C-11 set a relative standard for de-identification – in other words, it accepted that de-identification was sufficient if the information could not be used to identify individuals “in reasonably foreseeable circumstances”. This was reinforced by s. 74 which required organizations that de-identified personal information to use measures that were proportionate to the sensitivity of the information and the way in which the information was to be used. De-identification did not have to be perfect – but it had to be sufficient for the context.

Bill C-11’s definition of de-identification was criticized by private sector organizations that wanted de-identified data to fall outside the scope of the Act. In other words, they sought either an exemption from the application of the law for de-identified personal information, or a separate category of “anonymized” data that would be exempt from the law. According to this view, if data cannot be linked to an identifiable individual, then they are not personal data and should not be subject to data protection law. For their part, privacy advocates were concerned about the very real re-identification risks, particularly in a context in which there is a near endless supply of data and vast computing power through which re-identification can take place. These concerns are supported by research (see also here and here). The former federal Privacy Commissioner recommended that it be made explicit that the legislation would apply to de-identified data.

The changes in Bill C-27 reflect the power of the industry lobby on this issue. Bill C-27 creates separate definitions for anonymized and de-identified data. These are:

anonymize means to irreversibly and permanently modify personal information, in accordance with generally accepted best practices, to ensure that no individual can be identified from the information, whether directly or indirectly, by any means.

[. . .]

de-identify means to modify personal information so that an individual cannot be directly identified from it, though a risk of the individual being identified remains. [my emphasis]

Organizations will therefore be pleased that there is now a separate category of “anonymized” data, although such data must be irreversibly and permanently modified to ensure that individuals are not identifiable. This is harder than it sounds; there is, even with synthetic data, for example, still some minimal risk of reidentification. An important concern, therefore, is whether the government is actually serious about this absolute standard, whether it will water it down by amendment before the bill is enacted, or whether it will let interpretation and argument around ‘generally accepted best practices’ soften it up. To ensure the integrity of this provision, the law should enable the Privacy Commissioner to play a clear role in determining what counts as anonymization.

Significantly, under Bill C-27, information that is ‘anonymized’ would be out of scope of the statute. This is made clear in a new s. 6(5) which provides that “this Act does not apply in respect of personal information that has been anonymized”. The argument to support this is that placing data that are truly anonymized out of scope of the legislation creates an incentive for industry to anonymize data, and anonymization (if irreversible and permanent) is highly privacy protective. Of course, similar incentives can be present if more tailored exceptions are created for anonymized data without it falling ‘out of scope’ of the law.

Emerging and evolving concepts of collective privacy take the view that there should be appropriate governance of the use of human-derived data, even if it has been anonymized. Another argument for keeping anonymized data in scope relates to the importance of oversight, given re-identification risks. Placing anonymized data outside the scope of data protection law is contrary to the recent recommendations of the ETHI Standing Committee of the House of Commons following its hearings into the use of de-identified private sector mobility data by the Public Health Agency of Canada. ETHI recommended that the federal laws be amended “to render these laws applicable to the collection, use, and disclosure of de-identified and aggregated data”. Aggregated data is generally considered to be data that has been anonymized. The trust issues referenced by ETHI when it comes to the use of de-identified data reinforce the growing importance of notions of collective privacy. It might therefore make sense to keep anonymized data within scope of the legislation (with appropriate exceptions to maintain incentives for anonymization) leaving room for governance of anonymization.

Bill C-27 also introduces a new definition of “de-identify”, which refers to modifying data so that individuals cannot be directly identified. Direct identification has come to mean identification through specific identifiers such as names, or assigned numbers. The new definition of ‘de-identify’ in C-27 suggests that simply removing direct identifiers will suffice to de-identify personal data (a form of what, in the GDPR, is referred to as pseudonymization). Thus, according to this definition, as long as direct identifiers are removed from a data set, an organization can use data without knowledge or consent in certain circumstances, even though specific individuals might still be identifiable from those data. While it will be argued that these circumstances are limited, the exception for sharing for ‘socially beneficial purposes’ is disturbingly broad given this weak definition (more to come on this in a future blog post). In addition, the government can add new exceptions to the list by regulation.

The reference in the definition of ‘de-identify’ only to direct identification is meant to be read alongside s. 74 of Bill C-27, which provides:

74 An organization that de-identifies personal information must ensure that any technical and administrative measures applied to the information are proportionate to the purpose for which the information is de-identified and the sensitivity of the personal information.

Section 74 remains unchanged from Bill C-11, where it made more sense, since it defined de-identification in terms of direct or indirect identifiers using a relative standard. In the context of the new definition of ‘de-identify’, it is jarring, since de-identification according to the new definition requires only the removal of direct identifiers. What this, perhaps, means is that although the definition of de-identify only requires removal of direct identifiers, actual de-identification might mean something else. This is not how definitions are supposed to work.

In adopting these new definitions, the federal government sought to align its terminology with that used in Quebec’s Loi 25 that reformed its public and private sector data protection laws. The Quebec law provides, in a new s. 23, that:

[. . .]

For the purposes of this Act, information concerning a natural person is anonymized if it is, at all times, reasonably foreseeable in the circumstances that it irreversibly no longer allows the person to be identified directly or indirectly.

Information anonymized under this Act must be anonymized according to generally accepted best practices and according to the criteria and terms determined by regulation.

Loi 25 also provides that data is de-identified (as opposed to anonymized) “if it no longer allows the person concerned to be directly identified”. At first glance, it seems that Bill C-27 has adopted similar definitions – but there are differences. First, the definition of anonymization in Loi 25 uses a relative standard (not an absolute one as in C-27). It also makes specific reference not just to generally accepted best practices, but to criteria and terms to be set out in regulation, whereas in setting standards for anonymization, C-27 refers only to “generally accepted best practices”. [Note that in its recommendations following its hearings into the use of de-identified private sector mobility data by the Public Health Agency of Canada, the ETHI Committee of Parliament recommended that federal data protection laws should include “a standard for de-identification of data or the ability for the Privacy Commissioner to certify a code of practice in this regard.”]

Second, and most importantly, in the Quebec law, anonymized data does not fall outside the scope of the legislation –instead, a relative standard is used to provide some flexibility while still protecting privacy. Anonymized data are still subject to governance under the law, even though the scope of that governance is limited. Further, under the Quebec law, recognizing that the definition of de-identification is closer to pseudonymization, the uses of de-identified data are more restricted than they are in Bill C-27.

Further, in an eye-glazing bit of drafting, s. 2(3) of Bill C-27 provides:

2(3) For the purposes of this Act, other than sections 20 and 21, subsections 22(1) and 39(1), sections 55 and 56, subsection 63(1) and sections 71, 72, 74, 75 and 116, personal information that has been de-identified is considered to be personal information.

This is a way of saying that de-identified personal information remains within the scope of the Act except where it does not. Yet, data that has only direct identifiers stripped from it should always be considered personal information, since the reidentification risk, as noted above, could be very high. What s. 2(3) does is allow de-identified data to be treated as anonymized (out of scope) in some circumstances. For example, s. 21 allows organizations to use ‘de-identified’ personal information for internal research purposes without knowledge or consent. The reference in s. 2(3) amplifies this by providing that such information is not considered personal information. As a result, presumably, other provisions in Bill C-27 would not apply. This might include data breach notification requirements – yet if information is only pseudonymized and there is a breach, it is not clear why such provisions should not apply. Pseudonymization might provide some protection to those affected by a breach, although it is also possible that the key was part of the breach, or that individuals remain re-identifiable in the data. The regulator should have jurisdiction. Subsection 22(1) allows for the use and even the disclosure of de-identified personal information between parties to a prospective business transaction. In this context, the de-identified information is not considered personal information (according to s. 2(3)) and so the only safeguards are those set out in s. 22(1) itself. Bizarrely, s. 22(1) makes reference to the sensitivity of the information – requiring safeguards appropriate to its sensitivity, even though it is apparently not considered personal information. De-identified (not anonymized) personal information can also be shared without knowledge or consent for socially beneficial purposes under s. 39(1). (I have a blog post coming on this provision, so I will say no more about it here, other than to note that given the definition of ‘de-identify’, such sharing seems rash and the safeguards provided are inadequate). Section 55 provides for a right of erasure of personal information; since information stripped of direct identifiers is not personal information for the purposes of section 55 (according to s. 2(3)), this constitutes an important limitation on the right of erasure. If data are only pseudonymized, and if the organization retains the key, then why is there no right of erasure? Section 56 addresses the accuracy of personal information. Personal information de-identified according to the definition in C-27 would also be exempted from this requirement.

In adopting the definitions of ‘anonymize’ and ‘de-identify’, the federal government meets a number of public policy objectives. It enhances the ability of organizations to make use of data. It also better aligns the federal law with Quebec’s law (at least at the definitional level). The definitions may also create scope for other privacy protective technologies such as pseudonymization (which is what the definition of de-identify in C-27 probably really refers to) or different types of encryption. But the approach it has adopted creates the potential for confusion, for risks to privacy, and for swathes of human-derived data to fall ‘outside the scope’ of data protection law. The government view may be that, once you stir all of Bill C-27’s provisions into the pot, and add a healthy dose of “trust us”, the definition of “de-identify” and its exceptions are not as problematic as they are at first glance. Yet, this seems like a peculiar way to draft legislation. The definition should say what it is supposed to say, rather than have its defects mitigated by a smattering of other provisions in the law and faith in the goodness of others and the exceptions still lean towards facilitating data use rather than protecting privacy.

In a nutshell, C-27 has downgraded the definition of de-identification from C-11. It has completely excluded from the scope of the Act anonymized data, but has provided little or no guidance beyond “generally accepted best practices” to address anonymization. If an organization claims that their data are anonymized and therefore outside of the scope of the legislation, it will be an uphill battle to get past the threshold issue of anonymization in order to have a complaint considered under what would be the new law. The organization can simply dig in and challenge the jurisdiction of the Commissioner to investigate the complaint.

All personal data, whether anonymized or ‘de-identified’ should remain within the scope of the legislation. Specific exceptions can be provided where necessary. Exceptions in the legislation for the uses of de-identified information without knowledge or consent must be carefully constrained and reinforced with safeguards. Further, the regulator should play a role in establishing standards for anonymization and de-identification. This may involve consultation and collaboration with standards-setting bodies, but references in the legislation must be to more than just “generally accepted best practices”.

Published in Privacy

Note: this is the first in a series of blog posts on Bill C-27, also known as An Act to enact the Consumer Privacy Protection Act, the Personal Information and Data Protection Tribunal Act and the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act.

Bill C-27 is a revised version of the former Bill C-11 which died on the order paper just prior to the last federal election in 2021. The former Privacy Commissioner called Bill C-11 ‘a step backwards’ for privacy, and issued a series of recommendations for its reform. At the same time, industry was also critical of the Bill, arguing that it risked making the use of data for innovation too burdensome.

Bill C-27 takes steps to address the concerns of both privacy advocates and those from industry with a series of revisions, although there is much that is not changed from Bill C-11. Further, it adds an entirely new statute – the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (AIDA) – meant to govern some forms of artificial intelligence. This series of posts will assess a number of the changes found in Bill C-27. It will also consider the AIDA.

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The federal government has made it clear that it considers consent to be a cornerstone of Canadian data protection law. They have done so in the Digital Charter, in Bill C-11 (the one about privacy), and in the recent reincarnation of data protection reform legislation in Bill C-27. On the one hand, consent is an important means by which individuals can exercise control over their personal information; on the other hand, it is widely recognized that the consent burden has become far too high for individuals who are confronted with long, complex and often impenetrable privacy policies at every turn. At the same time, organizations that see new and emerging uses for already-collected data seek to be relieved of the burden of obtaining fresh consents. The challenge in privacy law reform has therefore been to make consent meaningful, while at the same time reducing the consent burden and enabling greater use of data by private and public sector entities. Bill C-11 received considerable criticism for how it dealt with consent (see, for example, my post here, and the former Privacy Commissioner’s recommendations to improve consent in C-11 here). Consent is back, front and centre in Bill C-27, although with some important changes.

Section 15 of Bill C-27 reaffirms that consent is the default rule for collection, use or disclosure of personal information, although the statute creates a long list of exceptions to this general rule. One criticism of Bill C-11 was that it removed the definition of consent in s. 6.1 of PIPEDA, which provided that consent “is only valid if it is reasonable to expect that an individual to whom the organization’s activities are directed would understand the nature, purpose and consequences of the collection, use or disclosure of the personal information to which they are consenting.” Instead, Bill C-11 simply relied upon a list of information that must be provided to individuals prior to consent. Bill C-27’s compromise is found in the addition of a new s. 15(4) which requires that the information provided to individuals to obtain their consent must be “in plain language that an individual to whom the organization’s activities are directed would reasonably be expected to understand.” This has the added virtue of ensuring, for example, that privacy policies for products or services directed at youth or children must take into account the sophistication of their audience. The added language is not as exigent as s. 6.1 (for example, s. 6.1 requires an understanding of the nature, purpose and consequences of the collection, use and disclosure, while s. 15(4) requires only an understanding of the language used), so it is still a downgrading of consent from the existing law. It is, nevertheless, an improvement over Bill C-11.

A modified s. 15(5) and a new s. 15(6) also muddy the consent waters. Subsection 15(5) provides that consent must be express unless it is appropriate to imply consent. The exception to this general rule is the new subsection 15(6) which provides:

(6) It is not appropriate to rely on an individual’s implied consent if their personal information is collected or used for an activity described in subsection 18(2) or (3).

Subsections 18(2) and (3) list business activities for which personal data may be collected or used without an individual’s knowledge or consent. At first glance, it is unclear why it is necessary to provide that implied consent is inappropriate in such circumstances, since no consent is needed at all. However, because s. 18(1) sets out certain conditions criteria for collection without knowledge or consent, it is likely that the goal of s. 15(6) is to ensure that no organization circumvents the limited guardrails in s. 18(1) by relying instead on implied consent. The potential breadth of s. 18(3) (discussed below), combined with s. 2(3) makes it difficult to distinguish between the two, in which case, the cautious organization will comply with s. 18(3) rather than rely on implied consent in any event.

The list of business activities for which no knowledge or consent is required for the collection or use of personal information is pared down from that in Bill C-11. The list in C-11 was controversial, as it included some activities which were so broadly stated that they would have created gaping holes in any consent requirement (see my blog post on consent in C-11 here). The worst of these have been removed. This is a positive development, although the provision creates a backdoor through which other exceptions can be added by regulation. Further, Bill C-27 has added language to s. 12(1) to clarify that the requirement that the collection, use or disclosure of personal information must be “only in a manner and for purposes that a reasonable person would consider appropriate in the circumstances” applies “whether or not consent is required under this Act.”

[Note that although the exceptions in s. 18 are to knowledge as well as consent, s. 62(2)(b) of Bill C-27 will require that an organization provide plain language information about how it makes use of personal information, and how it relies upon exceptions to consent “including a description of any activities referred to in subsection 18(3) in which it has a legitimate interest”.]

Bill C-27 does, however, contain an entirely new exception to the collection or use of personal data with knowledge or consent. This is found in s. 18(3):

18 (3) An organization may collect or use an individual’s personal information without their knowledge or consent if the collection or use is made for the purpose of an activity in which the organization has a legitimate interest that outweighs any potential adverse effect on the individual resulting from that collection or use and

(a) a reasonable person would expect the collection or use for such an activity; and

(b) the personal information is not collected or used for the purpose of influencing the individual’s behaviour or decisions.

So as not to leave this as open-ended as it seems at first glance, a new s. 18(4) sets conditions precedent for the collection or use of personal information for ‘legitimate purposes’:

(4) Prior to collecting or using personal information under subsection (3), the organization must

(a) identify any potential adverse effect on the individual that is likely to result from the collection or use;

(b) identify and take reasonable measures to reduce the likelihood that the effects will occur or to mitigate or eliminate them; and

(c) comply with any prescribed requirements.

Finally, a new s. 18(5) requires the organization to keep a record of its assessment under s. 18(4) and it must be prepared to provide a copy of this assessment to the Commissioner at the Commissioner’s request.

It is clear that industry had the ear of the Minister when it comes to the addition of ss. 18(3). A ‘legitimate interest’ exception was sought in order to enable the use of personal data without consent in a broader range of circumstances. Such an exception is found in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Here is how it is worded in the GDPR:

6(1) Processing shall be lawful only if and to the extent that at least one of the following applies:

[. . . ]

(f) processing is necessary for the purposes of the legitimate interests pursued by the controller or by a third party, except where such interests are overridden by the interests or fundamental rights and freedoms of the data subject which require protection of personal data, in particular where the data subject is a child.

Under the GDPR, an organization that relies upon legitimate interests instead of consent, must take into account, among other things:

6(4) [. . . ]

(a) any link between the purposes for which the personal data have been collected and the purposes of the intended further processing;

(b) the context in which the personal data have been collected, in particular regarding the relationship between data subjects and the controller;

(c) the nature of the personal data, in particular whether special categories of personal data are processed, pursuant to Article 9, or whether personal data related to criminal convictions and offences are processed, pursuant to Article 10;

(d) the possible consequences of the intended further processing for data subjects;

(e) the existence of appropriate safeguards, which may include encryption or pseudonymisation.

Bill C-27’s ‘legitimate interests’ exception is different in important respects from that in the GDPR. Although Bill C-27 gives a nod to the importance of privacy as a human right in a new preamble, the human rights dimensions of privacy are not particularly evident in the body of the Bill. The ‘legitimate interests’ exception is available unless there is an “adverse effect on the individual” that is not outweighed by the organization’s legitimate interest (as opposed to the ‘interests or fundamental freedoms of the individual’ under the GDPR). Presumably it will be the organization that does this initial calculation. One of the problems in data protection law has been quantifying adverse effects on individuals. Data breaches, for example, are shocking and distressing to those impacted, but it is often difficult to show actual damages flowing from the breach, and moral damages have been considerably restricted by courts in many cases. Some courts have even found that ordinary stress and inconvenience of a data breach is not compensable harm since it has become such a routine part of life. If ‘adverse effects’ on individuals are reduced to quantifiable effects, the ‘legitimate interests’ exception will be far too broad.

This is not to say that the ‘legitimate interests’ provision in Bill C-27 is incapable of facilitating data use while at the same time protecting individuals. There is clearly an attempt to incorporate some checks and balances, such as reasonable expectations and a requirement to identify and mitigate any adverse effects. But what C-27 does is take something that, in the GDPR, was meant to be quite exceptional to consent and make it potentially a more mainstream basis for the use of personal data without knowledge or consent. It is able to do this because rather than reinforce the centrality and importance of privacy rights, it places privacy on an uneasy par with commercial interests in using personal data. The focus on ‘adverse effects’ runs the risk of equating privacy harm with quantifiable harm, thus trivializing the human and social value of privacy.

 

 

Published in Privacy

 

On March 30, 2022 Alberta introduced Bill 13, the Financial Innovation Act. The Bill aims to create a regulatory sandbox for innovators in the growing financial technology (fintech) sector. This is a sector in which there is already considerable innovation and development – with more to come as Canada moves towards open banking. (Canada just appointed a new open banking lead on March 22, 2022). In addition to open banking, we are seeing a proliferation of cryptocurrencies, growing interest in central bank digital currencies, and platform-based digital currencies.

The concept of a regulatory sandbox is gaining traction in different sectors. Some forms of innovation in the new digital and data-driven economy run up against regulatory frameworks designed for more conventional forms of technological development. The existing regulatory system becomes a barrier to innovation – not because the innovation is necessarily harmful or undesirable, but simply because it does not fit easily within the conventional framework. A regulatory sandbox is meant to give innovators some regulatory flexibility to develop their products or services, while at the same time allowing regulators to experiment with tailoring regulation to the emerging technological environment.

Some examples of regulatory sandboxes in Canada include one developed by the Canadian Securities Administration largely for the emerging fintech sector (the CSA Regulatory Sandbox), a Health Canada regulatory sandbox for advanced therapeutic products, and the Law Society of Ontario’s legal tech regulatory sandbox. These are sandboxes developed by regulatory bodies which provide flexibility within their existing regulatory frameworks. What is different about Alberta’s Bill 13 is that it legislates a broader regulatory sandbox. The Bill provides for qualified participants to receive exemptions from rules within multiple existing regulatory frameworks, including rules under the Loan & Trust Corporation Act and the Credit Union Act (among others – see s. 8 of the Bill)– as well as provincial privacy legislation.

Access to and use of personal data will be necessary for fintech apps, and existing privacy legislation can create challenges in this context. Certainly, for open banking to work in Canada, the federal government’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act will need to be amended. Bill C-11, which died on the order paper in late 2021 contained an amendment that would have allowed for the creation of sector-specific data mobility frameworks via regulation. An amendment of this kind, for example, would have facilitated open banking. With such an approach, privacy protection is not abandoned; rather, it is customized.

Alberta’s Bill 13 appears to be designed to provide some form of customization in order to protect privacy while facilitating innovation. Section 5 of the Bill provides that when a company seeks an exemption from provisions of the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA), this application for exemption must be reviewed by Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner. The Commissioner is empowered to require the company to provide it with all necessary information to assess the request. The Commissioner may then approve or deny the exemption outright, or approve it subject to terms and conditions. The Commissioner may also withdraw any previously granted approval. The role of the IPC is thus firmly embedded in the legislation. Section 8, which empowers the Minister to grant a certificate of acceptance to a sandbox participant, provides that the Minister may grant an exemption to any provision of PIPA only with the prior written approval of the Commissioner and only on terms and conditions jointly agreed to by the Minister and the Commissioner. Similarly, the Minister’s power to add, amend or revoke an exemption to PIPA in s. 10(4) of the Act can only be exercised in conjunction with the Information and Privacy Commissioner. The Commissioner retains the power to withdraw a written approval (s. 10(5)) and doing so will require the Minister to promptly revoke the exemption.

Bill 13 also provides for transparency with respect to regulatory sandbox exemptions via requirements to publish information about sandbox participants, exemptions, terms and conditions imposed on them, expiry dates, and any amendments, revocations or cancellations of certificates of acceptance.

Given the federal-provincial division of powers, the scope of Bill 13 is somewhat limited, as it cannot provide exemptions to federal regulatory requirements. While Credit Unions are under provincial jurisdiction, banks are federally regulated, and the federal private sector data protection law – PIPEDA – also applies to interprovincial flows of data. Nevertheless, s. 19 of the Bill provides for reciprocal agreements between Alberta and “other governments that have a regulatory sandbox framework, or agencies of those other governments”. There is room here for collaboration and co-operation.

Bill 13 is clearly designed to attract fintech startups to Alberta by providing a more supple regulatory environment in which to operate. This is an interesting bill, and one to watch as it moves through the legislature in Alberta. Not only is it a model for a legislated regulatory sandbox its approach to addressing privacy issues is worth some examination.

Published in Privacy

On March 29, I appeared before Ontario's Standing Committee on Social Policy on the topic of the government's proposed Bill 88. My statement, which builds on an earlier post about this same bill is below. Note that the Bill has since received Royal Assent. No definition (as proposed below) of electronic monitoring was added to the bill by amendment. None of the amendments proposed by the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner were added.

Remarks by Teresa Scassa to the Standing Committee on Social Policy of the Ontario Legislature – Hearing on Bill 88, An Act to enact the Digital Platform Workers' Rights Act, 2022 and to amend various Acts

March 29, 2022

Thank you for this invitation to appear before the Standing Committee on Social Policy. My name is Teresa Scassa and I hold the Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Policy at the University of Ottawa.

The portion of Bill 88 that I wish to address in my remarks is that dealing with electronic monitoring of employees in Schedule 2. This part of the Bill would amend the Employment Standards Act to require employers with 25 or more employees to put in place a written policy on electronic monitoring and to provide employees with a copy. This is an improvement over having no requirements at all regarding employee monitoring. However, it is only a small step forward, and I will address my remarks to why it is important to do more, and where that might start.

Depending on the definition of electronic monitoring that is adopted (and I note that the bill does not contain a definition), electronic monitoring can include such diverse practices as GPS tracking of drivers and vehicles; cellphone tracking; and video camera surveillance. It can also include tracking or monitoring of internet usage, email monitoring, and the recording of phone conversations for quality control. Screen-time and key-stroke monitoring are also possible, as is tracking to measure the speed of task performance. Increasingly, monitoring tools are paired with AI-enabled analytics. Some electronic monitoring is for workplace safety and security purposes; other monitoring protects against unauthorized internet usage. Monitoring is now also used to generate employee metrics for performance evaluation, with the potential for significant impacts on employment, retention and advancement. Although monitoring was carried out prior to the pandemic, pandemic conditions and remote work have spurred the adoption of new forms of electronic monitoring. And, while electronic monitoring used to be much easier to detect (for example, surveillance cameras mounted in public view were obvious), much of it is now woven into the fabric of the workplace or embedded on workplace devices and employees may be unaware of the ways in which they are monitored and the uses to which their data will be put. The use of remote and AI-enabled monitoring services may also see employee data leaving the country, and may expose it to secondary uses (for example, in training the monitoring company’s AI algorithms).

An amendment that requires employers to establish a policy that gives employees notice of any electronic monitoring will at least address the issue of awareness of such monitoring, but it does very little for employee privacy. This is particularly disappointing since there had been some hope that a new Ontario private sector data protection law would have included protections for employee privacy. Privacy protection in the workplace is typically adapted to that context – it does not generally require employee consent for employment-related data collection. However, it does set reasonable limits on the data that is collected and on the purposes to which it is put. It also provides for oversight by a regulator like the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC), and provides workers with a means of filing complaints in cases where they feel their rights have been infringed. Privacy laws also provide additional protections that are increasingly important in an era of cyber-insecurity, as they can address issues such as the proper storage and deletion of data, and data breach notification. In Canada, private sector employees have this form of privacy protection in Quebec, BC and Alberta, as well as in the federally-regulated private sector. Ontarians should have it too.

Obviously, Bill 88 will not be the place for this type of privacy protection. My focus here is on changes that could be made to Bill 88 that could enhance the small first step it takes on this important issue.

First, I would encourage this committee to recommend the addition of a definition of ‘electronic monitoring’. The broad range of technologies and applications that could constitute electronic monitoring and the lack of specificity in the Bill could lead to underinclusive policies from employers who struggle to understand the scope of the requirement. For example, do keypad entry systems constitute electronic monitoring? Are vehicular GPS systems fleet management devices or electronic employee monitoring or both? I propose the following definition:

electronic monitoring” is the collection and/or use of information about an employee by an employer, or by a third party for the benefit of an employer, by means of electronic equipment, computer programs, or electronic networks. Without limiting the generality of the forgoing, this includes collection and use of information gathered by employer-controlled electronic equipment, vehicles or premises, video cameras, electronic key cards and key pads, mobile devices, or software installed on computing devices or mobile devices.

Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner has made recommendations to improve the employee monitoring provisions of Bill 88. She has proposed that it be amended to require a digital copy of all electronic-monitoring policies drafted to comply with this Bill to be submitted to her office. This would be a small additional obligation that would not expose employers to complaints or liability. It would allow the OIPC to gather important data on the nature and extent of electronic workplace monitoring in Ontario. It would also give the OIPC insight into current general practices and emerging best practices. It could be used to understand gaps and shortcomings. Data gathered in this way could help inform future law and policy-making in this area. For example, I note that the Lieutenant Governor in Council will have the power under Bill 88 to make regulations setting out additional requirements for electronic monitoring policies, terms or conditions of employment related to electronic monitoring, and prohibitions related to electronic monitoring. The Commissioner’s recommendation would enhance both transparency and data gathering when it comes to workplace surveillance.

Published in Privacy

 

On February 28, 2022, the Ontario government introduced Bill 88, titled: An Act to enact the Digital Platform Workers’ Rights Act, 2022 and to amend various Acts. The Bill is now at the second reading stage.

Most of the attention received by the bill has been directed towards provisions that establish new rights for digital platform workers. The focus of this post is on a set of amendments relating to electronic monitoring of employees.

Bill 88 will amend the Employment Standards Act, 2000 to require employers with more than 25 employees to put in place written policies regarding employee monitoring. The policies must specify whether the employer monitors employees electronically, how and in what circumstances it does so, and for what purposes. Policies must include the date that they were prepared along with any dates of amendment. Regulations may also specify additional information to be contained in the policies. Employers will also have to provide – within set time limits – copies of the policy to each employee, as well as copies of any policies that have been revised or updated. There are policy record-keeping requirements as well.

The term “electronic monitoring” is not defined in the Bill, and there may be issues regarding its scope. Certainly, it would seem likely that audio and video surveillance, as well as key-stroke monitoring and other forms of digital surveillance would be captured by the concept. Less obvious to some employers might be things such as access cards that allow employees to enter and access certain areas of the workplace. Such cards track employee movements, and thus may also count as electronic monitoring. Beyond this, the bill provides significant scope for changes to obligations via regulation – the government may exempt employees from the requirement to have policies for certain forms of electronic monitoring in specified circumstances. Regulations may also prohibit some forms of electronic monitoring.

Given the extent to which employees are increasingly subject to electronic monitoring in the workplace – including in work-from-home contexts – these new provisions are welcome. They will provide employees with a right to know how and when they are being digitally monitored and for what purposes. However, the rights do not go much beyond this. Employees can only complain if they do not receive a copy of their employer’s policy within the specified timelines; the bill states that “a person may not file a complaint alleging a contravention of any other provision of this section or have such a complaint investigated” (s. 41.1.1(6)). Further, the bill places no limits on what employers may do with the information gathered. Section 41.1.1(7) provides: “nothing in this section affects or limits an employer’s ability to use information obtained through electronic monitoring of its employees”.

In 2021, the Ontario government floated the idea of enacting its own private sector data protection law. Such a law would have most likely included provisions protecting employee workplace privacy. Indeed, the province’s White Paper proposed the following:

An organization may collect, use or disclose personal information about an employee if the information is collected, used or disclosed solely for the purposes of,

(a) establishing, managing or terminating an employment or volunteer-work relationship between the organization and the individual; or

(b) managing a post-employment or post-volunteer-work relationship between the organization and the individual.

Although such a provision gives significant room for employers to collect data about their employees, including through electronic means, there is at least a purpose limitation that is absent from the Bill 88 amendments. Including employee personal information under a general data protection law would also have brought with it other protections contained within such legislation, including the right to complain of any perceived breach. All employees – not just those in work forces of 25 or more employees would have some rights with respect to data collected through electronic surveillance; such information would have to be collected, used or disclosed solely for the specified workplace-related purposes. Such an obligation would also be measurable against the general reasonableness requirement in privacy legislation.

The amendments to the Employment Standards Act, 2000 to address electronic surveillance of employees are better than nothing at all. Yet they do not go nearly as far as privacy legislation would in protecting employees’ privacy rights and in providing them with some recourse if they feel that employment surveillance goes beyond what is reasonably required in the employment context. With a provincial election looming it is highly unlikely that we will see a private sector data protection law introduced in the near future. One might also wonder whether the current government has lost its appetite entirely for such a move. In its submissions on the province’s White Paper, for example, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce chastised the province for considering the introduction of privacy legislation that would impose an additional burden on businesses at a time when they were seeking to recover from the effects of the pandemic. They advocated instead for reform to the federal government’s private sector data protection law which would build on the existing law and provide some level of national harmonization. Yet there are places where the federal law does not and cannot reach – and employment outside of federal sectors is one of them. Privacy protections for workers in Ontario must be grounded in provincial law; the proposed changes to the Employment Standards Act, 2000 fall far short of what a basic privacy law would provide.

Published in Privacy

 

 

 

I was invited to appear before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics (ETHIC) on February 10, 2022. The Committee was conducting hearings into the use of de-identified, aggregate mobility data by the Public Health Agency of Canada. My opening statement to the committee is below. The recording of this meeting (as well as all of the other meetings on this topic) can be found here: https://www.ourcommons.ca/Committees/en/ETHI/Meetings

Thank you for the invitation to address this Committee on this important issue.

The matter under study by this Committee involves a decision by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) to use de-identified aggregate mobility data sourced from the private sector to inform public health decision-making during a pandemic.

This use of mobility data – and the reaction to it – highlight some of the particular challenges of our digital and data society:

· It confirms that people are genuinely concerned about how their data are used. It also shows that they struggle to keep abreast of the volume of collection, the multiple actors engaged in collection and processing, and the ways in which their data are shared with and used by others. In this context, consent alone is insufficient to protect individuals.

· The situation also makes clear that data are collected and curated for purposes that go well beyond maintaining customer relationships. Data are the fuel of analytics, profiling, and AI. Some of these uses are desirable and socially beneficial; others are harmful or deeply exploitative. The challenge is to facilitate the positive uses and to stop the harmful and exploitative ones.

· The situation also illustrates how easily data now flow from the private sector to the public sector in Canada. Our current legal framework governs public and private sector uses of personal data separately. Our laws need to be better adapted to address the flow of data across sectors.

Governments have always collected data and used it to inform decision-making. Today they have access to some of the same tools for big data analytics and AI as the private sector, and they have access to vast quantities of data to feed those analytics.

We want governments to make informed decisions based on the best available data, but we want to prevent excessive intrusions upon privacy.

Both PIPEDA and the Privacy Act must be modernized so that they can provide appropriate rules and principles to govern the use of data in a transformed and transforming digital environment. The work of this Committee on the mobility data issue could inform this modernization process.

As you have heard already from other witnesses, PIPEDA and the Privacy Act currently apply only to data about identifiable individuals. This creates an uncomfortable grey zone for de-identified data. The Privacy Commissioner must have some capacity to oversee the use of de-identified data, at the very least to ensure that re-identification does not take place. For example, the province of Ontario addressed this issue in 2019 amendments to its public sector data protection law. Amendments defined de-identified information for the purposes of use by government, required the development of data standards for de-identified data, and provided specific penalties for the re-identification of de-identified personal data.

The Discussion Paper on the Modernization of the Privacy Act speaks of the need for a new framework to facilitate the use of de-identified personal information by government, but we await a Bill to know what form that might take.

The former Bill C-11 – the bill to amend the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act that died on the Order Paper last fall, specifically defined de-identified personal information. It also created exceptions to the requirements of knowledge and consent to enable organizations to de-identify personal information in their possession; and to use or disclose it in some circumstances – also without knowledge and consent. It would have required de-identification measures proportional to the sensitivity of the information, and would have prohibited the re-identification of de-identified personal information – with stiff penalties.

The former Bill C-11 would also have allowed private sector organizations to share de-identified data without knowledge or consent, with certain entities (particularly government actors), for socially beneficial purposes. This provision would have applied to the specific situation before this committee right now – it would have permitted this kind of data sharing – and without the knowledge or consent of the individuals whose data were de-identified and shared.

This same provision or a revised version of it will likely be in the next bill to reform PIPEDA that is introduced into Parliament. When this happens, important questions to consider will be the scope of this provision (how should socially beneficial purposes be defined?); what degree of transparency should be required on the part of organizations who share our de-identified information?; and how will the sharing of information for socially beneficial purposes by private sector organizations with the government dovetail with any new obligations for the public sector -- including whether there should be any prior review or approval of plans to acquire and/or use the data, and what degree of transparency is required. I hope that the work of this Committee on the mobility data issue will help to inform these important discussions.

Published in Privacy

 

On December 7, 2021, the privacy commissioners of Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta issued orders against the US-based company Clearview AI, following its refusal to voluntarily comply with the findings in the joint investigation report they issued along with the federal privacy commissioner on February 3, 2021.

Clearview AI gained worldwide attention in early 2020 when a New York Times article revealed that its services had been offered to law enforcement agencies for use in a largely non-transparent manner in many countries around the world. Clearview AI’s technology also has the potential for many different applications including in the private sector. It built its massive database of over 10 billion images by scraping photographs from publicly accessible websites across the Internet, and deriving biometric identifiers from the images. Users of its services upload a photograph of a person. The service then analyzes that image and compares it with the stored biometric identifiers. Where there is a match, the user is provided with all matching images and their metadata, including links to the sources of each image.

Clearview AI has been the target of investigation by data protection authorities around the world. France’s Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés has found that Clearview AI breached the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Australia and the UK conducted a joint investigation which similarly found the company to be in violation of their respective data protection laws. The UK commissioner has since issued a provisional view, stating its intent to levy a substantial fine. Legal proceedings are currently underway in Illinois, a state which has adopted biometric privacy legislation. Canada’s joint investigation report issued by the federal, Quebec, B.C. and Alberta commissioners found that Clearview AI had breached the federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, as well as the private sector data protection laws of each of the named provinces.

The Canadian joint investigation set out a series of recommendations for Clearview AI. Specifically, it recommended that Clearview AI cease offering its facial recognition services in Canada, “cease the collection, use and disclosure of images and biometric facial arrays collected from individuals in Canada”, and delete any such data in its possession. Clearview AI responded by saying that it had temporarily ceased providing its services in Canada, and that it was willing to continue to do so for a further 18 months. It also indicated that if it offered services in Canada again, it would require its clients to adopt a policy regarding facial recognition technology, and it would offer an audit trail of searches.

On the second and third recommendations, Clearview AI responded that it was simply not possible to determine which photos in its database were of individuals in Canada. It also reiterated its view that images found on the Internet are publicly available and free for use in this manner. It concluded that it had “already gone beyond its obligations”, and that while it was “willing to make some accommodations and met some of the requests of the Privacy Commissioners, it cannot commit itself to anything that is impossible and or [sic] required by law.” (Letter reproduced at para 3 of Order P21-08).

In this post I consider three main issues that flow from the orders issued by the provincial commissioners. The first relates to the cross-border reach of Canadian law. The second relates to enforcement (or lack thereof) in the Canadian context, particularly as compared with what is available in other jurisdictions such as the UK and the EU. The third issue relates to the interest shown by the commissioners in a compromise volunteered by Clearview AI in the ongoing Illinois litigation – and what this might mean for Canadians’ privacy.

 

1. Jurisdiction

Clearview AI maintains that Canadian laws do not apply to it. It argues that it is a US-based company with no physical presence in Canada. Although it initially provided its services to Canadian law enforcement agencies (see this CBC article for details of the use of Clearview by Toronto Police Services), it had since ceased to do so – thus, it no longer had clients in Canada. It scraped its data from platform companies such as Facebook and Instagram, and while many Canadians have accounts with such companies, Clearview’s scraping activities involved access to data hosted on platforms outside of Canada. It therefore argued that it not only did not operate in Canada, it had no ‘real and substantial’ connection to Canada.

The BC Commissioner did not directly address this issue. In his Order, he finds a hook for jurisdiction by referring to the personal data as having been “collected from individuals in British Columbia without their consent”, although it is clear there is no direct collection. He also notes Clearview’s active contemplation of resuming its services in Canada. Alberta’s Commissioner makes a brief reference to jurisdiction, simply stating that “Provincial privacy legislation applies to any private sector organization that collects, uses and discloses information of individuals within that province” (at para 12). The Quebec Commissioner, by contrast, gives a thorough discussion of the jurisdictional issues. In the first place, she notes that some of the images came from public Quebec sources (e.g., newspaper websites). She also observes that nothing indicates that images scraped from Quebec sources have been removed from the database; they therefore continue to be used and disclosed by the company.

Commissioner Poitras cited the Federal Court decision in Lawson for the principle that PIPEDA could apply to a US-based company that collected personal information from Canadian sources – so long as there is a real and substantial connection to Canada. She found a connection to Quebec in the free accounts offered to, and used by, Quebec law enforcement officials. She noted that the RCMP, which operates in Quebec, had also been a paying client of Clearview’s. When Clearview AI was used by clients in Quebec, those clients uploaded photographs to the service in the search for a match. This also constituted a collection of personal information by Clearview AI in Quebec.

Commissioner Poitras found that the location of Clearview’s business and its servers is not a determinative jurisdictional factor for a company that offers its services online around the world, and that collects personal data from the Internet globally. She found that Clearview AI’s database was at the core of its services, and a part of that database was comprised of data from Quebec and about Quebeckers. Clearview had offered its service in Quebec, and its activities had a real impact on the privacy of Quebeckers. Commissioner Poitras noted that millions of images of Quebeckers were appropriated by Clearview without the consent of the individuals in the images; these images were used to build a global biometric facial recognition database. She found that it was particularly important not to create a situation where individuals are denied recourse under quasi-constitutional laws such as data protection laws. These elements in combination, in her view, would suffice to create a real and substantial connections.

Commissioner Poitras did not accept that Clearview’s suspension of Canadian activities changed the situation. She noted that information that had been collected in Quebec remained in the database, which continued to be used by the company. She stated that a company could not appropriate the personal information of a substantial number of Quebeckers, commercialise this information, and then avoid the application of the law by saying they no longer offered services in Quebec.

The jurisdictional questions are both important and thorny. This case is different from cases such as Lawson and Globe24hrs, where the connections with Canada were more straightforward. In Lawson, there was clear evidence that the company offered its services to clients in Canada. It also directly obtained some of its data about Canadians from Canadian sources. In Globe24hrs, there was likewise evidence that Canadians were being charged by the Romanian company to have their personal data removed from the database. In addition, the data came from Canadian court decisions that were scraped from websites located in Canada. In Clearview AI, while some of the scraped data may have been hosted on servers located in Canada, most were scraped from offshore social media platform servers. If Clearview AI stopped offering its services in Canada and stopped scraping data from servers located in Canada, what recourse would Canadians have? The Quebec Commissioner attempts to address this question, but her reasons are based on factual connections that might not be present in the future, or in cases involving other data-scraping respondents. There needs to be a theory of real and substantial connection that specifically addresses the scraping of data from third-party websites, contrary to those websites’ terms of use, and contrary to the legal expectations of the sites’ users that can anchor the jurisdiction of Canadian law, even when the scraper has no other connection to Canada.

Canada is not alone with these jurisdictional issue – Australia’s orders to Clearview AI are currently under appeal, and the jurisdiction of the Australian Commissioner to make such orders will be one of the issues on appeal. A jurisdictional case – one that is convincing not just to privacy commissioners but to the foreign courts that may have to one day determine whether to enforce Canadian decisions – needs to be made.

 

2. Enforcement

At the time the facts of the Clearview AI investigation arose, all four commissioners had limited enforcement powers. The three provincial commissioners could issue orders requiring an organization to change its practices. The federal commissioner has no order-making powers, but can apply to Federal Court to ask that court to issue orders. The relative impotence of the commissioners is illustrated by Clearview’s hubristic response, cited above, that indicates that it had already “gone beyond its obligations”. Clearly, it considers anything that the commissioners had to say on the matter did not amount to an obligation.

The Canadian situation can be contrasted with that in the EU, where commissioners’ orders requiring organizations to change their non-compliant practices are now reinforced by the power to levy significant administrative monetary penalties (AMPs). The same situation exists in the UK. There, the data commissioner has just issued a preliminary enforcement notice and a proposed fine of £17M against Clearview AI. As noted earlier, the enforcement situation is beginning to change in Canada – Quebec’s newly amended legislation permits the levying of substantial AMPs. When some version of Bill C-11 is reintroduced in Parliament in 2022, it will likely also contain the power to levy AMPs. BC and Alberta may eventually follow suit. When this happens, the challenge will be first, to harmonize enforcement approaches across those jurisdictions; and second, to ensure that these penalties can meaningfully be enforced against offshore companies such as Clearview AI.

On the enforcement issue, it is perhaps also worth noting that the orders issued by the three Commissioners in this case are all slightly different. The Quebec Commissioner orders Clearview AI to cease collecting images of Quebeckers without consent, and to cease using these images to create biometric identifiers. It also orders the destruction, within 90 days of receipt of the order, all of the images collected without the consent of Quebeckers, as well as the destruction of the biometric identifiers. Alberta’s Commissioner orders that Clearview cease offering its services to clients in Alberta, cease the collection and use of images and biometrics collected from individuals in Alberta, and delete the same from its databases. BC’s order prohibits the offering of Clearview AI’s services using data collected from British Columbians without their consent to clients in British Columbia. He also orders that Clearview AI use “best efforts” to cease its collection, use and disclosure of images and biometric identifiers of British Columbians without its consent, as well as to use the same “best efforts” to delete images and biometric identifiers collected without consent.

It is to these “best efforts” that I next turn.

 

3. The Illinois Compromise

All three Commissioners make reference to a compromise offered by Clearview AI in the course of ongoing litigation in Illinois under Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act. By referring to “best efforts” in his Order, the BC Commissioner seems to be suggesting that something along these lines would be an acceptable compromise in his jurisdiction.

In its response to the Canadian commissioners, Clearview AI raised the issue that it cannot easily know which photographs in its database are of residents of particular provinces, particularly since these are scraped from the Internet as a whole – and often from social media platforms hosted outside Canada.

Yet Clearview AI has indicated that it has changed some of its business practices to avoid infringing Illinois law. This includes “cancelling all accounts belonging to any entity based in Illinois” (para 12, BC Order). It also includes blocking from any searches all images in the Clearview database that are geolocated in Illinois. In the future, it also offers to create a “geofence” around Illinois. This means that it “will not collect facial vectors from any scraped images that contain metadata associating them with Illinois” (para 12 BC Order). It will also “not collect facial vectors from images stored on servers that are displaying Illinois IP addresses or websites with URLs containing keywords such as “Chicago” or “Illinois”.” Clearview apparently offers to create an “opt-out” mechanism whereby people can ask to have their photos excluded from the database. Finally, it will require its clients to not upload photos of Illinois residents. If such a photo is uploaded, and it contains Illinois-related metadata, no search will be performed.

The central problem with accepting the ‘Illinois compromise’ is that it allows a service built on illegally scraped data to continue operating with only a reduced privacy impact. Ironically, it also requires individuals who wish to benefit from this compromise, to provide more personal data in their online postings. Many people actually suppress geolocation information from their photographs to protect their privacy. Ironically, the ‘Illinois compromise’ can only exclude photos that contain geolocation data. Even with geolocation turned on, it would not exclude the vacation pics of any BC residents taken outside of BC (for example). Further, limiting scraping of images from Illinois-based sites will not prevent the photos of Illinois-based individuals from being included within the database a) if they are already in there, and b) if the images are posted on social media platforms hosted elsewhere.

Clearview AI is a business built upon data collection practices that are illegal in a large number of countries outside the US. The BC Commissioner is clearly of the opinion that a compromise solution is the best that can be hoped for, and he may be right in the circumstances. Yet it is a bitter pill to think that such flouting of privacy laws will ultimately be rewarded, as Clearview gets to keep and commercialize its facial recognition database. Accepting such a compromise could limit the harms of the improper exploitation of personal data, but it does not stop the exploitation of that data in all circumstances. And even this unhappy compromise may be out of reach for Canadians given the rather toothless nature of our current laws – and the jurisdictional challenges discussed earlier.

If anything, this situation cries out for global and harmonized solutions. Notably it requires the US to do much more to bring its wild-west approach to personal data exploitation in line with the approaches of its allies and trading partners. It also will require better cooperation on enforcement across borders. It may also call for social media giants to take more responsibility when it comes to companies that flout their terms and conditions to scrape their sites for personal data. The Clearview AI situation highlights these issues – as well as the dramatic impacts data misuse may have on privacy as personal data continues to be exploited for use in powerful AI technologies.

Published in Privacy

 

It has been quite a while since I posted to my blog. The reason has simply been a crushing workload that has kept me from writing anything that did not have an urgent deadline! In the meantime, so much has been going on in terms of digital and data law and policy in Canada and around the world. I will try to get back on track!

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been garnering a great deal of attention globally –for its potential to drive innovation, its capacity to solve urgent challenges, and its myriad applications across a broad range of sectors. In an article that is forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of Law and Technology, Bradley Henderson, Colleen Flood and I examine issues of algorithmic and data bias leading to discrimination in the healthcare context. AI technologies have tremendous potential across the healthcare system – AI innovation can improve workflows, enhance diagnostics, accelerate research and refine treatment. Yet at the same time, AI technologies bring with them many concerns, among them, bias and discrimination.

Bias can take many forms. In our paper, we focus on those manifestations of bias that can lead to discrimination of the kind recognized in human rights legislation and the Charter. Discrimination can arise either from flawed assumptions being coded into algorithms, from adaptive AI that makes its own correlations, or from unrepresentative data (or from a combination of these).

There are some significant challenges when it comes to the data used to train AI algorithms. Available data may reflect existing disparities and discrimination within the healthcare system. For example, some communities may be underrepresented in the data because of lack of adequate access to healthcare, or from a lack of trust in the healthcare system that tends to keep them away until health issues become acute. Lack of prescription drug coverage or access to paid sick leave may also impact when and how people access health care services. Racial or gender bias in terms of how symptoms or concerns are recorded or how illness is diagnosed can also affect the quality and representativeness of existing stores of data. AI applications developed and trained on data from US-based hospitals may reflect the socio-economic biases that impact access to health care in the US. It may also be questionable the extent to which they are generalizable to the Canadian population or sub-populations. In some cases, data about race or ethnicity may be important markers for understanding diseases and how they manifest themselves but these data may be lacking.

There are already efforts afoot to ensure better access to high quality health data for research and innovation in Canada, and our paper discusses some of these. Addressing data quality and data gaps is certainly one route to tackling bias and discrimination in AI. Our paper also looks at some of the legal and regulatory mechanisms available. On the legal front, we note that there are some recourses available where things go wrong, including human rights complaints, lawsuits for negligence, or even Charter challenges. However, litigating the harms caused by algorithms and data is likely to be complex, expensive, and fraught with difficulty. It is better by far to prevent harms than to push a system to improve itself after costly litigation. We consider the evolving regulatory landscape in Canada to see what approaches are emerging to avoid or mitigate harms. These include regulatory approaches for AI-enabled medical devices, and advanced therapeutic products. However, these systems focus on harms to human health, and would not apply to AI tools developed to improve access to healthcare, manage workflows, conduct risk assessments, and so on. There are regulatory gaps, and we discuss some of these. The paper also makes recommendations regarding improving access to better data for research and innovation, with the accompanying necessary enhancements to privacy laws and data governance regimes to ensure the protection of the public.

One of the proposals made in the paper is that bias and discrimination in healthcare-related AI applications should be treated as a safety issue, bringing a broader range of applications under Health Canada regulatory regimes. We also discuss lifecycle regulatory approaches (as opposed to one-off approvals), and providing warnings about data gaps and limitations. We also consider enhanced practitioner licensing and competency frameworks, requirements at the procurement stage, certification standards and audits. We call for law reform to human rights legislation which is currently not well-adapted to the AI context.

In many ways, this paper is just a preliminary piece. It lays out the landscape and identifies areas where there are legal and regulatory gaps and a need for both law reform and regulatory innovation. The paper is part of the newly launched Machine MD project at uOttawa, which is funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and that will run for the next four years.

The full pre-print text of the article can be found here.

Published in Privacy

 

The Federal Court has issued its decision in a reference case brought by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada regarding the interpretation of his jurisdiction under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). The reference relates to a complaint against Google about its search engine, and implicating the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’. Essentially, the complainant in that case seeks an order requiring Google to de-index certain web pages that show up in searches for his name and that contain outdated and inaccurate sensitive information. Google’s response to the complaint was to challenge the jurisdiction of the Commissioner to investigate. It argued that its search engine functions were not a ‘commercial activity’ within the meaning of PIPEDA and that PIPEDA therefore did not apply. It also argued that its search engine was a journalistic or literary function which is excluded from the application of PIPEDA under s. 4(2)(c). The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) both intervened.

Associate Chief Justice Gagné ruled that the Commissioner has jurisdiction to deal with the complaint. In this sense, this ruling simply enables the Commissioner to continue with his investigation of the complaint and to issue his Report of Findings – something that could no doubt generate fresh fodder for the courts, since a finding that Google should de-index certain search results would raise interesting freedom of expression issues. Justice Gagné’s decision, however, focuses on whether the Commissioner has jurisdiction to proceed. Her ruling addresses 1) the commercial character of Google’s search engine activity; 2) whether Google’s activities are journalistic in nature; and 3) the relevance of the quasi-constitutional status of PIPEDA. I will consider each of these in turn.

1) The Commercial Character of Google’s Search Engine

Largely for division of powers reasons, PIPEDA applies only to the collection, use or disclosure of personal information in the course of “commercial activity”. Thus, if an organization can demonstrate that it was not engaged in commercial activity, they can escape the application of the law.

Justice Gagné found that Google collected, used and disclosed information in offering its search engine functions. The issue, therefore, was whether it engaged in these practices “in the course of commercial activity”. Justice Gagné noted that Google is one of the most profitable companies in existence, and that most of its profits came from advertising revenues. Although Google receives revenues when a user clicks on an ad that appears in search results, Google argued that not all search results generate ads – this depends on whether other companies have paid to have the particular search terms trigger their ads. In the case of a search for an ordinary user’s name, it is highly unlikely that the search will trigger ads in the results. However, Justice Gagné noted that advertisers can also target ads to individual users of Google’s search engine based on data that Google has collected about that individual from their online activities. According to Justice Gagné, “even if Google provides free services to the content providers and the user of the search engine, it has a flagrant commercial interest in connecting these two players.” (at para 57) She found that search engine users trade their personal data in exchange for the search results that are displayed when they conduct a search. Their data is, in turn, used in Google’s profit-generating activities. She refused to ‘dissect’ Google’s activities into those that are free to users and those that are commercial, stating that the “activities are intertwined, they depend on one another, and they are all necessary components of that business model.” (at para 59) She also noted that “unless it is forced to do so, Google has no commercial interest in de-indexing or de-listing information from its search engine.” (at para 59)

2) Is Google’s Search Engine Function Journalistic in Nature

PIPEDA does not apply to activities that are exclusively for journalistic purposes. This is no doubt to ensure that PIPEDA does not unduly interfere with the freedom of the press. Google argued that its search engine allowed users to find relevant information, and that in providing these services it was engaged in journalistic purposes.

Justice Gagné observed that depending upon the person, a search by name can reveal a broad range of information from multiple and diverse sources. In this way, Google facilitates access to information, but, in her view, it does not perform a journalistic function. She noted: “Google has no control over the content of search results, the search results themselves express no opinion, and Google does not create the content of the search results.” (at para 82) She adopted the test set out in an earlier decision in A.T. v. Globe24hr.com, whereby an activity qualifies as journalism if “its purpose is to (1) inform the community on issues the community values, (2) it involves an element of original production, and (3) it involves a ‘self-conscious discipline calculated to provide an accurate and fair description of facts, opinion and debate at play within a situation.” (at para 83) Applying the test to Google’s activities, she noted that Google did more than just inform a community about matters of interest, and that it did not create or produce content. She observed as well that “there is no effort on the part of Google to determine the fairness or the accuracy of the search results.” (at para 85). She concluded that the search engine functions were not journalistic activity – or that if they were they were not exclusively so. As a result, the journalistic purposes did not exempt Google from the application of PIPEDA.

3) The Relevance of the Quasi-Constitutional Status of PIPEDA

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that both public and private sector data protection laws in Canada have quasi-constitutional status. What this means in practical terms is less clear. Certainly it means that they are recognized as laws that protect rights and/or values that are of fundamental importance to a society. For example, in Lavigne, the Supreme Court of Canada stated that the federal Privacy Act served as “a reminder of the extent to which the protection of privacy is necessary to the preservation of a free and democratic society” (at para 25). In United Food and Commercial Workers, the Supreme Court of Canada found that Alberta’s private sector data protection law also had quasi-constitutional status and stated: “The ability of individuals to control their personal information is intimately connected to their individual autonomy, dignity and privacy. These are fundamental values that lie at the heart of a democracy.” (at para 19)

What this means in practical terms is increasingly important as questions are raised about the approach to take to private sector data protection laws in their upcoming reforms. For example, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has criticized Bill C-11 (a bill to reform PIPEDA) for not adopting a human rights-based approach to privacy – one that is explicitly grounded in human rights values. By contrast, Ontario in its White Paper proposing a possible private sector data protection law for Ontario, indicates that it will adopt a human rights-based approach. One issue at the federal level might be the extent to which the quasi-constitutional nature of a federal data protection law does the work of a human rights-based approach when it comes to shaping interpretation of the statute. The decision in this reference case suggests that the answer is ‘no’. In fact, the Attorney-General of Canada specifically intervened on this point, argue that “[t]he quasi-constitutional nature of PIPEDA does not transform or alter the proper approach to statutory interpretation”. (at para 30). Justice Gagné agreed. The proper approach is set out in this quote from Driedger in Lavigne (at para 25): “the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context and in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act, and the intention of Parliament.”

In this case, the relevant words of the Act – “commercial activity” and “journalistic purposes” were interpreted by the Court in accordance with ordinary interpretive principles. I do not suggest that these interpretations are wrong or problematic. I do find it interesting, though, that this decision makes it clear that an implicit human rights-based approach is far inferior to making such an approach explicit through actual wording in the legislation. This is a point that may be relevant as we move forward with the PIPEDA reform process.

Next Steps

Google may, of course, appeal this decision to the Federal Court of Appeal. If it does not, the next step will be for the Commissioner to investigate the complaint and to issue its Report of Findings. The Commissioner has no order-making powers under PIPEDA. If an order is required to compel Google to de-index any sites, this will proceed via a hearing de novo in Federal Court. We are still, therefore, a long way from a right to be forgotten in Canada.

Published in Privacy

 

In June 2021, Ontario issued a White Paper that sets out some proposals, including suggested wording, for a new private sector data protection law for the province. This is part of its overall digital and data strategy. Input on the White Paper is sought by August 3, 2021.

I have published table that compares Ontario’s with the federal government’s Bill C-11 (which will not make it through Parliament in the present sitting, and which may get some necessary attention over the summer). It makes sense to compare the proposal to C-11 because, if it passes, any Ontario law would have to be found to be substantially similar to it. The Ontario proposal has clearly been drafted with Bill C-11 in mind. That said, the idea is not to simply copy Bill C-11. The White Paper shows areas where Bill C-11 may be largely copied, but other places where Ontario plans to modify it, add something new, or go in a different direction. Of course, feedback is sought on the contents of the White Paper, and a bill, if and when it is introduced in the Legislature, may look different from what is currently proposed – depending on what feedback the government receives.

I have prepared a Table that compares the Ontario proposal with Bill C-11, with some added commentary. The Table can be found here, with the caveat that the commentary is preliminary – and was generated quite quickly.

Please be sure to respond to the consultation by the August 3 deadline!

Published in Privacy
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