OTTAWA -- Objections from the federal privacy watchdog have failed, at least so far, to derail the government's new practice of using customs information to catch people who illegally collected unemployment insurance payments while abroad.
The Human Resources Department has so far notified its collections division of 257 potential fraud cases uncovered by matching the names of UI recipients with those on travellers' customs cards.
The department stands to nab up to 150,000 recipients who vacationed outside the country some time during the last three years in violation of federal rules, giving it a chance to collect as much as $180 million in repayments and penalties.
"We're very comfortable with where we stand legally on proceeding with this", said Ron Stewart, the department's director general of investigation and control.
Staff from the office of Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phllips had been quietly meeting Human Resources officials to persuade them it was wrong to use personal information gathered for customs purposes in ways the travellers never intended.
The Bloc Quebecois and groups representing UI recipients also spoke out against the plan.
The Revenue Department will warn future travellers that information they reveal on their customs declaration forms is used to track UI cheats, but the advisories won't be in place until late April.
Sally Jackson, the privacy commissioner's director of public affairs, said Mr. Phillips is about to wrap up an investigation into formal complaints received about the data-matching scheme.
The commissioner's office has the power to look into complaints, determine whether practices comply with the law, and make recommendations - although the agency involved is not bound by them.
"We haven't head the last of this one", said Ms Jackson, who expects Mr. Phillips will deliver his findings soon.
The Privacy Act says the government can use information for purposes other than originally intended only if people are told what else might be done with it.