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On-line property assessment information

Letter to the Editor, Vancouver Sun, 2 October 1996

By John Westwood

Dear Sir or Madam,

After listing some of the reasons why placing property assessment information on-line is a bad idea (“Ownership onus”, October 2, 1996), the Sun editorial staff comment that, since the information is publicly available anyway, “why not improve access, as Victoria briefly did?”

Here’s why.

The information in question (a person’s name, address and the assessed value of the property) is available at the local office of the B.C. Assessment Authority, but only by address. You cannot find the addresses of property owners just by knowing their names.

That information is also available through B.C. Online both by address and by name. However, to use B.C. Online, you must establish an account (thereby disclosing your name) and pay a fee; the details of your accessing information are recorded, and can be tracked.

In neither of these ways can a stalker or an anti-abortionist anonymously find out a woman’s or a physician’s address, for example.

What the City of Victoria did was to put this information on the Internet, so that it could be accessed by name, quickly, for free and anonymously.

From a privacy perspective, this is a whole new ball game. The previous constraints on finding people, or snooping into their private business, have been eliminated.

The mere fact that the information was available anyway is not sufficient reason for making it easily and anonymously available. A person’s criminal record is publicly available too, in that if you go the court where the conviction was handed down, the name, the Criminal Code offence and the sentence are accessible. The trouble is, in order to get the information you either need to know in which court the person was convicted, or be prepared to visit every courthouse in the province, or in Canada. What protects a person’s privacy regarding a criminal conviction (and other sensitive personal information) is precisely the practical difficulty of collecting the information. It makes a huge difference whether this same information is on-line.

It is not clear in my mind that personalized property assessment information ought to be available at all through B.C. Online. The public interest in holding tax authorities accountable would seem to be fully satisfied by non-personalized information such as address and assessed value.

But even if we grant that personalized assessment information should be available, the Sun is mistaken in thinking that no significant difference to people’s privacy is made by making it easily and anonymously accessible on the Internet.