Canada's Privacy Act needs an "overhaul" to protect citizens' personal information in the wake of decades' worth of advancements in technology and the way we store our information, the Privacy Commissioner argued on Thursday.

"Unfortunately, more than three decades have since passed without any substantive change to a law designed for a world where federal public servants still largely worked with paper files," Commissioner Daniel Therrien said.

"Technology, on the other hand, has not stood still. It is important that we move to reform the antiquated Privacy Act to provide Canadians with a law that protects their rights in an increasingly complex environment."

Therrien made his statement during an appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. The committee is currently reviewing the Privacy Act, which has remained largely unchanged since it came into effect in 1983.

The act is intended to "protect the privacy of individuals and ... provide individuals with a right of access to personal information about themselves."

Mandatory, periodical updates to Privacy Act proposed

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) proposed updates to the act under three broad categories: responding to technological change, legislative modernization and the need for transparency.

Therrien's suggested updates included:

  • Requiring that all information sharing be governed by "very explicit written agreements."
  • Creating an "explicit requirement" for government institutions to safeguard personal information, backed by a legal requirement to report information breaches to the OPC.
  • Requiring government departments to consult the OPC on bills that impact privacy before they are tabled in Parliament.
  • Extending the application of the Privacy Act to all government institutions, including Ministers' Offices and the Prime Minister's Office.
  • Requiring an update to the Privacy Act every five years.

Therrien also argued that that the Privacy Act should work in tandem with the Access to Information Act as a "seamless code."

"Privacy is an important enabler of transparency and open government by providing individuals with access to their own personal information held by federal institutions," he said. "At the same time, privacy is also a legitimate limit to openness if personal information risks being revealed inappropriately."

You can read Therrien's full statement here.