EXTRACTS FROM HANSARD -- PROCEEDINGS OF CANADA'S SENATE :
The following extract has been taken from Hansard Records of Canada's Senate:
Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
2nd Session, 36th Parliament,
Volume 138, Issue 57
Wednesday, May 17, 2000
The Honourable Gildas L. Molgat, Speaker
Human Resources Development
Privacy Commissioner's Report-Data Bank on Details of Private Citizens-Safeguards by Government
Hon. NoŰl A. Kinsella (Deputy Leader of the Opposition): Honourable senators, yesterday, the government tabled in the Senate the report of the Privacy Commissioner. I am sure that those who read that report were as startled as I to read that the government has been building an electronic information data bank on every Canadian, that traces us from birth to death. Even more startling, honourable senators, is that, of all departments, the Department of Human Resources Development has constructed a massive data base on the most minute and personal details of the lives of ordinary Canadians. Obviously, the parallels between this data bank and the world of George Orwell's book 1984 are chilling.
Given the pervasive nature of the Internet, electronic data transfers, organized crime and fraud, the highly reported case of Mafia Boy, and other potential unauthorized access to this data that the Government of Canada has collected, can the minister inform the Senate whether there exists in the policy of his government a legislative framework that will limit access to these potentially highly exposed private files on every Canadian?
Hon. J. Bernard Boudreau (Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, I thank the honourable senator for raising this very important issue that was highlighted in the report of the Privacy Commissioner tabled yesterday. I have not had an opportunity to review that report in great detail, but the Privacy Commissioner did highlight the extent to which information in this age of information technology is being gathered. He also highlighted the requirement that information be dealt with on a confidential and appropriate basis.
I was reassured, in my very brief perusal, that the Privacy Commissioner was not alleging that anything illegal was occurring. He did, however, call upon us to review this matter and, indeed, made some recommendations with respect to the Privacy Act.
I was also pleased that he noted favourably the recent enactment of Bill C-6, which passed this place a short time ago. He highlighted that bill as one of the most important privacy developments in the past 10 years.
He also made recommendations to the government for revisions of the Privacy Act. The government will take those recommendations and review and study them with a view to determining to what extent they may be put in place.
Senator Kinsella: Honourable senators, as I am sure the minister will recall, in his report the commissioner said:
Successive Privacy Commissioners have assured Canadians that there was no single federal government file, or profile about them.
Is there or is there not a single file in the data bank of the Government of Canada that contains this data on us? Were the current commissioner and his predecessors wrong when they said there is no such file? Is there a file? If there is such a file, what is the government's position on that?
Senator Boudreau: Honourable senators, I think the commissioner was alerting Canadians to the amount of information that is contained in the Human Resources Development Department. The commissioner did acknowledge that that department has made some progress toward making information less accessible. The number of people in the department with access to the encryption capacity has been reduced quite dramatically, from approximately 50 people to six. Do not hold me to those exact numbers, but I think that is the magnitude of the improvement that has been made.
With regard to whether there is one overall file, my impression from the Privacy Commissioner's report is that there is not, but I shall certainly make further inquiries. I understood the commissioner's comments to deal with the HRDC situation specifically.
Senator Kinsella: Honourable senators, in light of the concern of the Privacy Commissioner, can the Leader of the Government in the Senate indicate if we can expect a massive overhaul of the Privacy Act in the foreseeable future?
Senator Boudreau: Honourable senators, the recommendations contained in the report are being taken seriously and are being addressed in an immediate fashion. Indeed, HRDC has already implemented, and is continuing to fast-track, improvements arising from the report. As a whole, the government will be taking these recommendations most seriously. I cannot give an exact time frame for any potential action. However, I am confident that such action will follow in a most efficient way.
Hon. Roch Bolduc: Honourable senators, I read the report by Mr. Phillips, the Privacy Commissioner. What is going on is a serious matter. In my usual candour, I always believed that after filing my tax return with the Department of National Revenue, I would know how much I owed, send a cheque to Revenue Canada, and the matter would be closed. Nobody talked about it. It was a secret between me and the department.
Later, we learned that the Department of National Revenue conducts audits with the Quebec department of revenue. If we tell Revenue Canada something but forget to mention it to its Quebec counterpart, we will receive a letter a few weeks later, informing us that we made a mistake. Officials from both departments contact each other when the time comes to grab our money.
Now, we are finding out that our tax returns will be circulated in the Department of Human Resources Development, which is so well managed. It really worries me to know that my tax return will go to that department, and not only my tax return, but a whole set of unbelievable data mentioned on page 66 of the report, namely education, marital/family status, language, citizenship and landed immigrant status, ethnic origin, mobility, disabilities, income tax data, employment histories, labour market activities, use of social assistance and employment insurance. Really! This is truly Kafkaesque! And this is happening in Canada!
Do you know what it means when they get our tax returns? They know not only about our salary in the Senate - everyone knows it - but also about all our investments, income, et cetera. Furthermore, they circulate all that information to other departments. There are 25,000 employees in that department. This is awful!
Senator Boudreau: Honourable senators, I can appreciate the honourable senator's concern, particularly with the knowledge of his assets and business activities.
Of the thousands and thousands of people who may be involved in HRDC, the information I have is that, until recently, there were approximately 50 people in the department who could gain access to this information through the special encryption capacity. That number has been reduced to something in the order of six.
I do not mean to make light of any concerns with respect to privacy. I do not think there is any allegation in the report that any such information is being turned over for public use or anything of that nature. However, we must be ever vigilant. The degree of vigilance will increase as technology increases and as the capacity to retain, transfer and cross-correlate information grows by leaps and bounds.
The government is taking very seriously the report of the Privacy Commissioner. Clearly, it must meet the challenge that the new technology brings to gather information to best design government programs, to get the most effective use therefrom and, indeed, to measure outcome results. In order to do that, all this information is required, and at the same time the privacy of individual citizens must be protected.
Senator Bolduc: I am not doubting the intentions of the officials. I was myself an official and I have, therefore, a lot of respect for these people. I would like to read you the quote that goes with this business:
Of all the tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their conscience.
This leads me to ask you a second question. The commissioner tells us that the department may provide the data under contract to private research firms for the purposes of planning, producing statistics or research and assessment. Where will that lead us? Soon, everything will be on the Internet. I am horrified. You must introduce a bill to prevent this craziness, or I shall introduce one myself.
Senator Boudreau: Honourable senators, once again, let me say that I appreciate the concern of the honourable senator. I shall relay his concern to my colleagues in cabinet.
It is a challenge to find the appropriate balance. That challenge will increase, and will become ever greater, in particular as it applies in areas of health, for example, where the privacy and the necessity for confidentiality is absolutely critical. There is an increasing necessity to manage the system. How to accommodate one with the other is a challenge for government. The recommendations and the report of the Privacy Commissioner will no doubt be of great assistance in meeting that challenge.
Senator Kinsella: Honourable senators, clearly, the utilitarianism principle upon which the minister is now relying speaks directly to John Stuart Mill, that great philosopher of liberalism.
The minister mentioned in reply to a question a moment ago, "Oh well, in HRDC there may not be a whole bunch of people - it might be down to six or seven - who have access to this data bank." Surely, that is not the question. The question is: Does HRDC have access to all information, or is there any information about Canadians to which government does not have access?
Senator Boudreau: Honourable senators, the commissioner dealt with the specific reference to the HRDC situation in his report. I am not party to exactly what information HRDC gathers, and for what purposes. The comments made by the Privacy Commissioner have been taken seriously and they have to be addressed.
I make the point again that this is a challenge that faces government in the next decade and beyond. It is something which did not exist 20 years ago. It exists because technology has made information storage, transfer and correlation available, which can have a positive effect in some areas. However, there is also the issue of privacy to be considered. As we go forward, I hope that we continue to improve, as we did with Bill C-6, the capacity of government to ensure privacy for its citizens as it concerns this type of information.
Data Bank on Details of Private Citizens-Verification of Accuracy of Information
Hon. John Lynch-Staunton (Leader of the Opposition): Honourable senators, in Quebec, as the minister knows, the law provides that anyone whose credit is challenged may go to the credit bureau, which analyzes credit and supplies that information to potential lenders, to find out whether their file is accurate. Can the minister tell us if a Canadian can access the HRDC file the department has on him or her to ensure that the information therein is accurate?
Hon. J. Bernard Boudreau (Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, I would have to rely on someone more familiar with the legislation than I to answer that question, but citizens in this country do have an opportunity, through relevant legislation, to seek information from government.
Senator Lynch-Staunton: My question is: Can I have a copy of the information on me in that data bank, whether or not the government is entitled to it, to ensure that at least it is accurate?
Senator Boudreau: Honourable senators, I can inquire of the department as to what their treatment is of such a request under relevant legislation.
Data Bank on Details of Private Citizens-Availability of Information to Other Departments
Hon. Fernand Roberge: Is the Leader of the Government in the Senate telling us that the RCMP or other departments have access to this information?
Hon. J. Bernard Boudreau (Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, to what extent information is available across departments is something on which I would have to inquire. There is some access, as has been indicated in the report, but I am not familiar with the detail of the report yet, as it was tabled only yesterday. I can make those inquiries for the honourable senator.