British Columbia

Critics say new B.C. privacy laws put data at risk

New legislation that would increase the ability of B.C. government ministries to share citizens' information amongst themselves is drawing criticism.
New legislation would make several changes to the way government ministries share data. (Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)

New legislation that would increase the ability of B.C. government ministries to share citizens' information amongst themselves and centralize that data electronically is drawing criticism from civil liberties and privacy advocates.

The Liberal government introduced legislation this week that would change the way information is stored, make it easier for the province to offer services online and allow for more sharing between ministries and agencies.

The province says the legislation is necessary to bring B.C.'s 20-year-old privacy laws into the digital world, and the proposed changes have received the tentative approval of the privacy commissioner.

However, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association released a joint statement Wednesday suggesting the new law would needlessly put citizens' privacy at risk without offering any real benefit to government efficiency.

"This is your data flowing in all kinds of directions that you have no control over," Michael Vonn of the civil liberties association said in an interview.

"We're extremely concerned about what this means for citizens' privacy, their ability to access programs, and what this means for the efficiency of the system."

Program would permit sharing amongst ministries

The amendments to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act would make a number of changes.

The province says the proposed legislation would let ministries share information when government programs involve more than one department. It would:

  • Permit use of so-called data linking to combine existing databases, such as for research.
  • Allow the government to create a proposed secure ID that would combine driver's licences and health-care cards.
  • Pave the way to offering more services over the Internet, such as access to health records or voting.

It would also require ministries to proactively release more government records, which Premier Christy Clark has already ordered them to do.

The legislation includes a number of measures designed to increase oversight, such as requiring ministries to submit privacy impact assessments to the privacy commissioner before sharing information in a new way.

But Vonn questioned whether increased data sharing would make the government or its services more efficient.

She said governments in the United Kingdom have scrapped programs to collect and centralize data. She noted an internal report into a student information system within British Columbia's education ministry found it didn't meet the department's needs and ought to be abandoned.

Changes would improve services, says province

But Margaret MacDiarmid, the province's minister for labour, citizens' services and open government, insisted the changes will indeed improve government services and ensure people are able to access them online.

She noted the education ministry's student information system will be replaced with something that better suits the department's needs, not abandoned entirely.

MacDiarmid said the legislation includes a number of measures to ensure privacy is protected, and she said many of the changes, such as a new ID card and accessing services online, will be optional. In any case, MacDiarmid said any information sharing will require consent.

"It's going to allow us to interact with citizens, when they want to, electronically. It also has a number of protections of privacy, because that's the balancing in this act," said MacDiarmid.

"There are a lot of built-in protections in the legislation."

MacDiarmid noted the information and privacy commissioner will be involved early to ensure the government is protecting personal information.

'More work yet to be done'

The privacy commissioner said the legislation appears to strike an appropriate balance.

"It attempts to balance it, but some of these changes rely on more prescriptive rules. The devil is in the details and there's much more work yet to be done," Elizabeth Denham said in an interview.

Denham said she'll be working with the government to ensure subsequent regulations adequately protect the public's privacy.

She did raise a concern that the health sector is exempt from some sections of the proposed law if information is being shared within the ministry.

She said she will work with the government to establish rules for the health sector, which could include specific legislation aimed at heath information.