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Civil rights group condemns lack of privacy for Social Assistance applicants

A government form for assessing eligibility for social assistance is an unjustified incursion into the privacy of applicants, says the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

According to Murray Mollard, Policy Director, this form creates a new class of “privacy poor” individuals who already face serious economic challenges in their lives.

“It might be convenient for the government to give itself such sweeping authority to delve into the private lives of applicants. But it does not mean that it is acceptable. The government seems to have forgotten that citizens’ privacy must be given due weight in creating reasonable measures to assess eligibility.”

The current form requires the consent of those who are in no position to freely give it. They often require immediate assistance; if they do not consent, their eligibility is in peril.

Problems with the current form include:

  1. The consent form is a one size fits all approach, even though there are three distinct legislative programs requiring different types of information. A better approach would be for the government to create separate forms tailored to the needs of each particular program.
  2. Government workers are permitted to verbally request information from others to assess an applicant’s initial or continuing eligibility. There is no requirement that documenting identification be provided by the government employee. This method raises serious concerns about the potential for abuse: persons posing as government workers could obtain very sensitive personal information.
  3. Government workers can request “relevant” information, but the form does not specify what kind of information they can ask for, thereby permitting too much discretion.
  4. Government workers can request personal information not only about the applicant but also other family members. It is doubtful whether an applicant can consent to a serious intrusion into the privacy of other family members. Furthermore, there is no definition of which family members are relevant to eligibility.
  5. The consent form and information provided to the applicant do not specify in what circumstances information will be sought to assess continuing as opposed to initial eligibility. Will this be if there is a suspicion of fraud or overpayment? Will this be on a random basis? Will there be fishing expeditions?
  6. Government workers can obtain information from past, present and future employers and landlords, as well as from credit reporting agencies. Seeking this information could reveal that the applicant is seeking or receiving social assistance. Poverty advocates claim that disclosing this type of information can have serious repercussions for applicants including loss of work and residence. Our present human rights laws do not completely protect against discrimination on the basis of source of income or social assistance; even if they did, it would likely be very difficult to prove a case.
  7. Last, but not least, the government bears the burden of proving why it needs such sweeping authority to invade the lives of those seeking assistance. The typical government response is that it needs this power to prevent and discover fraud. However, determining eligibility and fraud are two very different things. The government needs to distinguish its practices with respect to the two very different purposes.

“Even in the case of fraud, the government must prove how obtaining information from particular institutions or people will deal with a real and pressing problem of fraud. This burden is more significant given statistics cited from Hansard in June of 1997: of an average of 371,000 individuals on social assistance in any one month in 1996—only 365 charges of fraud were laid, with only 188 convictions in that year. One alternative to consider is seeking consent for specific information only where a suspicion of fraud exists.

“Social assistance is an important and distinguishing feature of Canadian society. Though it is reasonable that government has the ability to assess eligibility, it must do so in a way that respects the privacy of citizens. The current consent form sacrifices privacy for bureaucratic expediency.

“The Ministries of Human Resources and Education, Skills and Training should withdraw the current form, and work with poverty advocacy and privacy groups to find more appropriate ways to assess eligibility and deal with fraud.”