Patriot Act seen as threat to Canadians' privacy

Canada's privacy commissioner has singled out the U.S. Patriot Act as a key perceived threat to Canadians' privacy.

Considerably more could be done to prevent foreign governments, Washington in particular, from collecting personal information about Canadians, Canada's privacy commissioner said in her annual report.

Concern over the flow of information became heightened following passage of the U.S. Patriot Act, passed by Congress shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Jennifer Stoddart said in the report on the Privacy Act released onTuesday.

A large majority of Canadians are worried about the flow of information collected at the U.S. border,Stoddart said, citing recent polling commissioned by her office.

"The overall issue of transborder dataflows has certainly caught the imagination of Canadians, and we have received inquiries and complaints which focus on it as a threat to the privacy," she said.

The polling suggests a whopping 94 per cent of Canadians surveyed have expressed some concern about Canadian companies transferring customers' personal information to companies in other countries.

EKOS Research Associates talked to 1,020 Canadians aged 16 and over between March 22 and March 29. A sample of this size is considered to be accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

"This office has certainly expressed concerns about our own Anti-Terrorism Act in previous annual reports, and noted the growing concern about the impact of foreign legislation on personal data that has left Canada," she said.

Changes to Privacy Act recommended

Stoddart said she hopes the government will introduce a new Privacy Act that can respond to "the reality of huge government systems that are capable of a surveillance we could not have dreamed of in 1982."

The Privacy Act has not been substantially amended since it came into effect in 1983.

Among the report's findings and recommendations to the Canada Border Services Agency:

  • The CBSA needs a co-ordinated method of identifying and tracking all flows of its transborder data.
  • Information is often disclosed without first obtaining approval from a designated CBSA official, which contravenes the agency's policy.
  • There are also weaknesses in the record-keeping associated with disclosures of information.
  • Activities associated with sharing data across borders should be made more transparent.

While the commissioner found that the border agencydoes havesystems in place for managing and sharing Canadians' personal information with other countries, she said "more must be done to mitigate risks, and achieve greater accountability and control over that information."

The report was tabled in the House of Commons.