The Toronto Star
Friday, March 19, 1999

Privacy bill called excessive

Criticism comes from unusual source: Civil liberties group

by William Walker

OTTAWA -- Personal privacy protection in a new government bill is actually excessive, says Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Borovoy's argument is an unusual intervention for one of the great champions of civil rights in Canada. He acknowledges his association has long believed that personal information about Canadians must be protected.

In fact, Borovoy said he "warmly supports" Bill C-54, which was created to protect personal privacy in the age of electronic commerce.

"But I believe the bill is excessively protecting privacy and could impede some legitimate social advocacy causes", Borovoy said in an interview yesterday.

"In some areas they've probably gone overboard and we have to be concerned about . . . the way personal information is described and the restraints that are placed on its subsequent disclosure", he said.

In a letter Borovoy sent to a parliamentary committee studying the bill, he cites an example of how the privacy restrictions could impede a good cause.

He recalls that several years ago the Labour Committee for Human Rights, an anti-racist organization, tested businesses for discrimination.

It would send two blacks, and later two whites, into apartments, tourist resorts and golf courses, for example, and if they were treated differently the committee would release the information to the media.

Borovoy said such efforts were partially responsible for the creation of Canada's human rights laws. But he worries that under Bill C-54, such advocacy would not be possible.

"One of the difficulties is that `personal information' is defined in the bill to include virtually any information about any identifiable individual that is recorded in any form", Borovoy wrote.

Personal information is defined much too broadly in the bill, Borovoy says

"It appears that such (advocacy) methods may violate the requirement for informed consent and even the collection of information by `fair means' that are contained in the bill."

Borovoy is suggesting an amendment allowing collection and release of information without the consent or knowledge of individuals if the accuracy of that information would be compromised by consent.

For example, Borovoy argued that the business owners would not have discriminated against black customers if they had been told in advance of the labour committee's intended purpose, damaging the accuracy of the study.

He said MPs should remember as they study Bill C-54 that publicly disclosing information gathered about inappropriate conduct "can be an important public service".

Since the bill is aimed at preventing commercial invasions of personal privacy, Borovoy suggested an amendment exempting the voluntary non-profit sector.

Copyright © 1999 by The Toronto Star. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.