Thursday, December 19, 1996
page D2

Hydro-Québec has right to know customer's SIN

by Bernard Perusse

Dear Gazette Probe,

When I moved in early August, Hydro-Québec asked me to give my social insurance number before my account could be "finalized". I'm wary of giving out my SIN, which can be used to gain access to sensitive personal data, including tax records and bank accounts.

I put Hydro off three or four times but I received a notice dated Sept. 5, 1996, demanding my SIN "to complete (my) file".

If I didn't comply, the message said, my power would be cut off. I took this request more seriously.

I work near Hydro-Québec's office, so I went there myself, hoping that another kind of identification would be satisfactory. I offered my driver's license and my medicare card but neither was accepted.

The Hydro representative showed me a small blue book that gave Hydro the right to ask for a customer's name, address, and SIN. No subsitutes, I was told.

At that point, I was just about ready to cave in but I honestly didn't remember my SIN -- nor do I carry it around with me.

Once again, I put off phoning Hydro with the number.

On Oct. 3, I returned home to find that my power had been cut off. I phoned the emergency line and was told that I hadn't paid my bills.

This had gone far enough. I caved in the next day and gave Hydro my SIN. My power was restored that evening.

Maybe I was not being co-operative but I am pretty particular about who gets my social-insurance number. It's OK for my employer, the government, or my bank, which deal in tax information, but no one else should have access. My driver's license or medicare card should be sufficient for anyone else.

Now that Hydro can do it, will Bell ask for my SIN next year? Then the cable company? And once everyone has it, what safeguards are there to protect it from unauthorized use?

Point Claire

Since June 13, Hydro's Bylaw No. 634 gives it the right to request customers' social-insurance number. If clients refuse to give it, Hydro can cut them off.

According to a letter sent to our reader by Hydro's west-district manager, Michel Tremblay, the access-to-information commission ruled in Hydro's favour on Sept. 27 last year, clearing the way for the bylaw.

The information is used discreetly, Tremblay assured our reader. Only Hydro's collection representatives can get it, he explained.

"(The practice) allows Hydro-Québec to have one unique, verifiable, universal way of identification for each residential customer", he said.

Hydro presses the issue for new customers or clients who are getting their power restored after being cur off, Tremblay wrote. The flip side of the coin, he added, is that Hydro can no longer ask for birth dates. Those on file were ordered to be removed.

We also spoke to Mariette Dion of the Québec access-to-information commission.

She confirmed that Hydro had convinced the commission that its clientele often migrates without leaving some kind of efficient tracing procedure. So the commission gave Hydro the SIN rule and ordered the removal of other personal data.

The rule of thumb, Dion said, is that the use of the SIN must have some logical connection with the purpose of the file being opened on the customer. Most companies can't just demand it without reason.

To keep a good relationship with our reader, Hydro cancelled the $50 reconnection fee. Obviously, it wasn't about the money, because our reader followed up with a $50 donation to the Gazette Christmans fund.

He said he is still worried about how secure personal information is in the techno age. Even his oil supplier recently asked him for his SIN, he told Probe. Our reader kept the number to himself and the oil man simply wrote "N.A.", he said.

And what about the others? We talked to Bell and CF Cable. Spokesmen for both companies said they ask for the SIN, particularly in the case of new customers. Both acknowledged, however, that other forms of ID will be accepted if the customer refuses to divulge his SIN.

Copyright © 1996 by All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.