OTTAWA -- A federal bill regulating how personal information is used in commercial activities has set off alarm bells. Privacy advocates across Canada are expressing concern that what began as a compromise between human rights advocates and industry representatives will become a sell-out to industry. Bill C-54, An act to Protect Personal Information in the Private Sector, returned to the House of Commons for third reading this week after months of hearings and fine-tuning by a legislative committee.
"It's alarming", said Pippa Lawson, legal counsel for the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which is spearheading a national campaign aimed at keeping the bill on track. "What was originally intended as legislation to stop corporations from abusing personal information, risks being turned into a licence for some of them to do just that", she said.
Key associations within Canada's insurance industry want Parliament to expand the potential for privacy invasion, Lawson said, citing the Association of Canadian Insurers, the Insurance Information Center of Canada, and the Insurance Bureau of Canada among those pressing for amendments to permit ongoing collection, use and disclosure of personal information without the consent -- or even knowledge -- of individuals.
Lawson said the insurance industry as well as other investigation agencies claim they need the additional surveillance powers to combat fraud. "They're using fraud detection as an excuse to vastly expand their ability to pry into individual lives", said Lawson. "They don't need carte blanche in order to deal with fraud. They're complaining because this legislation will force them to change the way they do business, but that's exactly what is needed. Commercial entities have been getting away with privacy invasive practices for too long."
Darrell Evans, Executive Director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, expressed concern about business opposition to the goal of the legislation, which is to put individuals control of their own information. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce opposes government regulation of privacy, lobbying instead for industry self-regulation.
"Self-regulation in this context is like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop", said Evans. "As long as businesses can make a buck out of unauthorized collection, use or disclosure of personal information, you can bet that they will do so. This is why we need government to step in with strong legislated protections."
Evans pointed out that European countries have had strong data protection laws in place for some time. "European citizens have experienced the sorry consequences of the loss of privacy, " Evans said. "They know how it happens."
Bill C-54 will initially apply only to federally regulated industries, but will be extended to provincially regulated commercial activity three years later, except where the province has passed its own similar legislation (as in Quebec). Lawson said the legislation applies only to commercial activities because of the limits on federal powers under the constitution. It will be up to the provinces to legislate similar protections for non-commercial activities, she said.
"This legislation is long overdue" said Lawson. "It's high time that our governments stepped in and stopped the wholesale loss of privacy that we are experiencing as a result of the ever-increasing trafficking in personal information by governments and corporations."
Information technology has made possible a huge industry in the collection, storage, manipulation, and trading of personal information. Consumers are finding themselves bombarded with increasingly pin-pointed marketing tactics. They are finding their confidential information published without their knowledge or consent, as some Whitehorse residents found to their dismay a few months ago when an alternative telephone directory including normally unlisted information, such as the individual's occupation, appeared at their doorsteps. Recent revelations of user-identifying codes built into Microsoft's Windows 98 operating system and Intel's new Pentium III microprocessor highlight the increasing vulnerability of computer users.
Valerie Steeves, Director of the Technology and Human Rights Project at the University of Ottawa Human Rights Research and Education Centre, noted with concern that the Ontario Ministry of Health is seeking a total exemption from the personal privacy provisions in C-54. "The Ontario government has proposed an exemption from the federal legislation in order, for example, to conduct research on individuals without first obtaining their consent", Steeves said. "This is a serious violation of human rights."
"Regardless of any social or economic goals that a government might espouse, such as monitoring a person's eating or lifestyle habits, they must not lose sight of the fundamental autonomy and dignity of individuals", said Steeves. "The Ontario government's proposed weakening of Bill C-54 would result in the curious situation whereby our most sensitive information is least protected." said Steeves. "We would end up with fewer privacy rights when we confided in our doctor than when we bought a toaster from Sears."