Government Activities

Many levels of government throughout Canada are undergoing major changes to their information management systems. Right now, many government computer systems cannot “talk to each other” because their systems are not “interoperable.”

Both the BC government and the government of Canada have comprehensive plans to change their systems so that many systems are interoperable. So there are many ongoing projects to link information throughout government-wide computer systems which are interoperable.

Governments say that these changes are driven by goals of efficiency, cost-reduction and modernization. They say they will achieve these goals by sharing information about citizens across departments and ministries. They say they are more cost-effective because they outsource the management and administration of their information systems to the private sector.

While modernizing technology to improve efficiency and make service delivery more direct are important, governments are often failing to adequately consider the privacy impacts of their work or even to consider privacy at all.

Today, many government information systems protect privacy in part because the systems are not interoperable: there are “walls” between the different parts of the system which prevents too much access. When the systems become interoperable, the “walls” come down, and staff in one department or ministry is given access to information held in other departments or ministries.  There is a serious risk that people will be able to access a lot more information than they need, or than they should have. This would be in violation of privacy law.

Another purpose of enterprise-wide interoperability appears to be to permit departments and ministries to do more data matching and data mining.

Laws and Policies That Threaten Your Privacy

Individual privacy rights are threatened by anti-terrorism, anti-fraud and anti-piracy laws, among others. In addition, departmental or ministerial policies and procedures involving new technology pose significant potential threats to individual privacy.

At the federal level, numerous laws, most enacted since 9/11, have changed the relationship between citizens and their governments. Today governments keep more of us under surveillance, track more of us, and extract more personal information about us from more sources than ever before in our history.

On the provincial level, major projects are underway to build an electronic health record and to permit the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the Ministry of Employment and Income Assistance to share information as part of the Social Sector Integrated Information Model, which envisions sharing information all across the social services sector.

Here are some examples of these laws and polices, all of which are discussed in detail in other parts of this handbook:

  1. Anti-Terrorism Act 
  2. Proceeds of Crime Act and Terrorist Financing Act (Money Laundering)
  3. Passport Canada’s Facial Recognition Project and e-passport
  4. Passenger Protect/No-Fly List
  5. BC Government’s Information Access Layer
  6. (E-Health) Personal Information Access and Protection of Privacy Act 
  7. Electronic Health Records

A portion of the above list was drawn from the 2006-2007 Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Annual Report to Parliament on the Privacy Act.