Nov 9, 2011

BC government claims new power over personal information. Public comment sidelined.


The BC government has a lot of personal information about you. Legislation passed last month means the government can do a lot more with it. The legislation passed without the public consultation demanded last year by the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

In 2010 a legislative committee undertook a review of Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA). In these reviews normally you would expect the government to protest any possible changes to make information more accessible. Not this time. Last year instead the Province delivered a 95 page report asking for dramatically increased rights to share and manipulate your information.

The government was pretty anxious to get the legislative committee’s approval for more power over your personal information. It was a big ticket item. A month earlier in the 2010 Throne Speech the government announced:

A new $180‑million integrated case management information technology system will deliver better front-line services and supports to women, children, income assistance recipients and those most vulnerable.

To make that new $180 million system work the government needed a lot more power to manipulate your information than it was allowed under FOIPPA.

However, the then Information and Privacy Commissioner had misgivings. He told the legislative committee:

Privacy is often, and wrongly, in our view, seen as a “barrier” by government entities to “efficient and effective” service delivery. Government agencies often suggest that the privacy protections contained in FIPPA be weakened to allow for liberal sharing of citizen personal information, within and across government entities. We are adamant that no legislative amendments to FIPPA are needed to authorize data sharing and data matching activities within government, and would strongly oppose any weakening of the existing right to privacy.

Most important, he recommended:

Government should not proceed with any more data sharing initiatives until a meaningful public consultation process has occurred, and the outcome of that process is an enforceable code of practice for data sharing programs.

The committee largely bought the provincial government arguments that it needed more power over our information, hook, line and sinker. But they did at least agree to “consider holding public hearings on data sharing initiatives.”

The calendar moved forward 18 months and these discussions played out with the introduction of Bill 3, The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Amendment Act, 2011. The legislation widens the scope of personal information that can be released inside or outside Canada including personal information found on social media sites and information obtained about someone commenting on public issues. While there are protections in the legislation, health care entities are exempted from those protections regarding data linking.

Most important, the new law permits the government to link its databases to “mine” information. The databases can come from different public bodies and agencies. It creates a powerful and wide collection of personal information that is permitted broad uses.

Just how broad are the possibilities. Here are the definitions outlined in the legislation:

“data linking” means the linking or combining of personal information in one database with personal information in one or more other databases if the purpose of the linking or combining is different from

(a) the purpose for which the information in each database was originally obtained or compiled, and

(b) every purpose that is consistent with each purpose referred to in paragraph (a);

“data-linking initiative” means a new or newly revised enactment, system, project, program or activity that has, as a component, data linking between

(a) two or more public bodies, or

(b) one or more public bodies and one or more agencies;

 All this was done with none of the public consultation called for by the Information Commissioner. But we have a new Information Commissioner who it seems was not willing to press the issue. Even new Commissioner Elizabeth Denham acknowledged, however, that:

The devil is in the details. Some of these changes need more prescriptive rules. There is much work yet to be done.

So the government has a whole new amusement park of our data to play in. The public had no say about it.

These changes were rushed through. In contrast, recommendations to reduce the culture of secrecy by improving freedom of information provisions were ignored. Well, not completely ignored. Section 13 of the legislation that allows the government to refuse to release any “advice of government” actually had its scope widened.

Last July Christy Clark talked about her open government plans in a column in the Vancouver Sun. What we got instead was legislation broadening the government’s power over our personal information without public input.

Does the government need these powers? Will the creation of massive personal information banks be useful? Maybe. But what would have been far more useful would be a public consultation process that allowed us to fully understand and comment on what the government was doing.

That was what the old Information Commissioner wanted. That would have been open government.