The Montreal Gazette
Monday, July 28, 1997

Ottawa's EI crackdown

Data collection by governments is an inescapable and growing aspect of our daily lives, but how these data are used and whether that use threatens individual privacy is a relatively new frontier that is only now being delineated.

The latest area of concern is the practice since March of last year of matching customs declarations from travellers returning from the United States and abroad with Employment Insurance statements.

EI recipients are supposed to be available for work and looking for work, not collecting benefits while on vacation. In a bid to detect fraud, Human Resources officials have been cross-checking Revenue Canada customs declarations with the bi-weekly forms filled out by Canadians receiving employment insurance. Revenue Canada is adding a notice to the customs forms advising travellers of the checking procedure.

Stopping EI fraud is a reasonable goal and the new technology has speeded up the process. The government estimates that $45 million in benefits are paid out in a year to about 50,000 EI recipients who are away an average two weeks. This contrasts with 30,000 recipients who declare their absence when they leave the country and receive no benefits.

There is nothing wrong with the government's objective. Why should it dock those honest enough to declare their absence while doing nothing about those who cheat?

The federal privacy commissioner has raised objections about guarantees in the Privacy Act, which appear to restrict the use of personal information collected for one program in another program. The practice of data-matching also could conflict with guarantees in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms against unreasonable search or seizure.

The privacy commissioner has therefore decided to launch a legal challenge in the Federal Court of Canada, a case that could have broad implications for how the growing mass of government data on individuals is used.

It is true that maintaining the rule of law in the new information society is a challenge we all have to face. The misuse of data collected in an approved and legitimate way can backfire and create unintended precedents. But cracking down on abuses of Employment Insurance is essential. Employees, companies and taxpayers will readily support a program that recovers an estimated $5 million worth of abuse every month.

In this particular case, Ottawa's methods seem perfectly reasonable. If the government is breaking the law, then the law should be amended to permit the practice to continue.

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