The Montreal Gazette
Wednesday, October 8, 1997

Quebec breaking own privacy rules: watchdog

by Campbell Clark

QUEBEC -- The Quebec government's increasing tendency to collect more information on its citizens and develop databases full of personal information runs against the principle of its own privacy laws, the ombudsman's office warned a National Assembly committee yesterday.

And the ombudsman's representatives also suggested the government hid its real intentions when it passed laws allowing the tax department to systematically cross-link computer databases to crack down on those who cheat in their taxes.

Micheline McNicoll said the ombudsman and the access-to-information commission withdrew their opposition last year to a law that allows the revenue department to demand databases of personal information from other departments.

The opposition was withdrawn after the government introduced some safeguards like submitting database-matching plans to the access to information commission for review.

But McNicoll, the ombudsman's expert on privacy issues, said the government indicated the database-matching would be a temporary measure to deal with an immediate crisis.

"We agreed to this, but in a such a specific context that, for us, there was absolutely no question that the department was thinking of making it a permanent method of investigation in the private life of all citizens."

McNicoll pointed out that the revenue department, in a report on its data-matching plans issued in June, wrote that that it intended to keep some databases obtained from other departments permanently, and that it intends to create a central database of personal information.

The minister responsible for the privacy and access-to-information laws, André Boisclair, replied that the laws had been debated publicly in Quebec's democratic institutions, and that the "virtue" of democratic debate must be recognized.

McNicoll's response was tart: "Democratic debate, the virtues of democratic debate -- we are stunned. We're stunned because either we really understood nothing, or somewhere we misunderstood."

"Did we have all the tools for a democratic debate?"

The National Assembly's culture committee is reviewing Quebec's access-to-information and privacy laws, after the Access to Information Commission issued its five-year report in June.

Yesterday's hearings focused not on access to information held by the government, but on privacy and especially the government's increasing cross-linking of databases of personal information.

The ombudsman's brief to the committee warned the practice flies against the spirit of the privacy laws.

"If the recent past is an indication of the future, there is reason to worry, and to ask what has happened to the intentions the National Assembly had in 1982, of committing to a path of administrative transparency and protection of privacy", McNicoll told the committee.

"In effect, the intentions of the moment . . . all seem to be converging toward a certain lack of transparency in the facts and actions of the administration, and an increased surveillance of citizens."

The president of the Access-to-Information Commission, Paul-André Comeau, also appeared before the committee, but he said he had little to say about the government's data-matching efforts, since few widescale data-matching projects have been completed since the law was passed. The commission is following the projects, and will make its views known as they happen, he said.

But while Comeau's public comments have been mild, the commission's written opinions have contained sterner warnings.

Its latest opinion, issued in June, also warned the multi-use databases run against the principles of Quebec's privacy laws, which call for government departments and agencies to collect information only for their purposes and to share it with other departments only in specific cases.

The commission concluded the revenue department does not need such widescale powers to collect taxes efficiently, and expressed doubts over whether the government could ensure the information would not be leaked.

While the hearings focused on privacy issues, a journalists' association, the Fédération Professionelle des Journalistes du Québec, called on the government to stop an erosion in the public's access to government documents.

The FPJQ's Michel C. Auger told the committee that Quebec Court judges are eroding the law, overturning the access commission's decision in 78 per cent of cases, and usually ruling in favour of government bodies that seek to withhold information. He called for the government to limit appeals to Quebec Court to strict questions of law.

And Auger said government agencies have been able to remove information from the jurisdiction of the laws by creating subsidiaries or foundations that courts have ruled are not subject to access-to-information laws.

The government must spell out clearly which organizations are subject to the law to prevent such manoeuvres, he said.

Copyright © 1997 by The Montreal Gazette. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.