The Hamilton Spectator
Thursday, February 20, 1997
page A6

Is $200m enough to buy your privacy?

by Wade Hemsworth

The Ontario government is playing a high-stakes confidence game with private collection agencies.

It has turned over $300 million worth of files, many of them confidential, to private collection agencies.

It's gambling that returned revenue will exceed public outrage at lost privacy.

In September, the provincial government contracted four companies to collect $300 million worth of old debts owed to various departments.

The bulk, or $180 million, is owed to the Ministry of the Attorney General, for outstanding fines levied by the courts.

-- Taxes --

Of the other $200 million, unpaid student loans and unremitted retail sales taxes make up the largest groups.

Included in those huge numbers is $16 million in welfare overpayments to be reclaimed by private collectors.

The one-year contracts, which quietly went into effect two months ago, provide for commissions of 30 to 40 per cent.

The rates are high because the debts are considered difficult to collect, said Jim McPeak, spokesman for the Management Board Secretariat, which administers cabinet policy.

He said whatever comes in will be considered "found money" by the province.

Some of that money is found by using the implied threat of legal action, including the seizure of property and garnishment of wages.

Theoretically, at least, these agencies stand to pocket between $90 million and $120 million scaring up old debts from delinquent former students, welfare clients, and people convicted in court.

Since the information became public in Tuesday's column, several readers have called to share their concern over the government turning over personal information to private companies.

Their opinions jibe with information collected by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa.

The non-profit group, which fights for the rights of ordinary Canadians against big government and big corporations, found the overwhelming majority of Canadians - including those without outstanding debts to the government - strongly oppose the government handing over confidential information to private businesses.

The September 1995 survey, titled Surveying Boundaries: Canadians and their Personal Information, asked 2,035 Canadians, among other things, "How concerned are you if government departments and private firms link the information they each have on you?"

-- Extremely Serious --

Half the group defined their concern as "extremely serious", while another 40 per cent ranged between moderately serious and extremely serious.

So, while the government may be acting according to the law, passing along such personal information to outside companies appears to contradict the wishes of ordinary Canadians to be left alone.

Such attitudes are fuelled by mounting evidence that the seal protecting our personal information from public view has become increasingly leaky.

Last spring, you might remember, Canadians were outraged to discover their confidential census information was being reviewed by their neighbours, who had been contracted by the federal government.

In the case of Ontario's collection agencies, there is no evidence to suggest any of the four companies is less than trustworthy.

But we should question our government when we weight the price of privacy against the potential $180 million to $210 million they might recover from us.

The social services ministry and the Management Board Secretariat say privacy legislation allows them to appoint outsiders as agents of the government.

As long as they agree to the same privacy rules as government employees, it is perfectly legal to turn over confidential files to them.

-- Trust us --

Trust us, says the government whose health minister resigned in December, over the release of confidential details of a doctor's income by a member of his staff.

Trust us, says the government whose former speaker was criticized for releasing the confidential résumé of a former female aide.

Trust us, says the government, we know how important your privacy is to you.

Back in December 1995, the provincial Tories instructed staff not to discuss social assistance cases with MPPs unless they had either written consent from clients or an MPP's letter outlining the concerns.

The reason?

"It's there to protect the confidentiality of the client", said then social services minister Dave Tsubouchi. "This kind of information just cant be released to anybody."

Released, maybe not. Sold, perhaps.

Copyright © 1997 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.