Watchdog slams government's 'slow to non-existent' action to protect Canadians' privacy

Canada's privacy watchdog is accusing the federal government of dragging its heels as privacy concerns reach "crisis levels." Watch Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien's press conference to discuss his report.

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien says concerns are reaching crisis levels

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien tabled his annual report in Parliament today, lambasting the government's lack of progress in taking action to protect Canadians' privacy. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada's privacy watchdog is accusing the federal government of dragging its heels as privacy concerns reach "crisis levels."

In his annual report tabled in Parliament today, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien slammed the government for not taking necessary steps to protect Canadians' privacy.

"Unfortunately, progress from government has been slow to non-existent," said Therrien in a news release. "Not only are the privacy rights of Canadians at stake, so too is our democracy and other fundamental values."

Massive privacy breaches — including the Equifax and Facebook/Cambridge Analytica incidents — have thrown a spotlight on privacy issues. Yet the government's response has been to launch a consultation process rather than to take action to strengthen laws and give his office the necessary powers to make orders, impose fines and carry out inspections to ensure businesses respect the law, Therrien said.

"It's not enough for the government to ask companies to do more to live up to their responsibilities. To increase trust in the digital economy, we must ensure Canadians can count on an independent regulator with the necessary tools to verify compliance with privacy law," he said.

In his report, Therrien said the Privacy Act was adopted 35 years ago to regulate privacy in the public sector. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced in 2016 that she had instructed her officials to begin "concentrated work" toward modernizing the law, yet no concrete proposal has yet been made public, he said.

Therrien said Canadians can't wait years to see deficient privacy laws fixed.

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien says Canadians need privacy laws that reflect the new digital landscape in Canada and the risks to privacy that have come with it. 0:53

"Technology is evolving extremely rapidly and many new technologies disrupt not only business models but also social and legal norms. Legal protections must improve apace if consumer trust is to reach the level everyone desires," he wrote in his report.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison said the government is developing an action plan to modernize the process for reporting privacy breaches in the public service that will be released in the coming weeks.

"We take very seriously the important responsibility we have to protect the privacy of Canadians. We recognize that times have changed that require new approaches, and that's why the action plan will be introduced in the coming weeks," he said.

'Right to be forgotten'

Following on his draft report earlier this year on the "right to be forgotten" issue, the commissioner said he plans to file a reference with the Federal Court to seek clarity on the issue of whether Google's search engine is subject to Canada's privacy laws before proceeding further with complaints made to his office.

At issue is "de-indexing," the process through which a web page, image or other online resource is removed from search engine results.

Therrien said social media and search engines post information that may be inaccurate, outdated or presented out of context — information that can be used for decisions on employment, housing or credit. He believes that, under the existing law, Canadians have a right to ask search engines to de-index web pages, and websites to remove or amend content, that contains inaccurate, incomplete or outdated information.

Privacy advocates say Canadians should have the right to remove certain search engine results to protect their reputations, and that the right already exists within current privacy laws. But freedom of expression advocates, including certain journalism groups, say it could infringe on freedom of expression guarantee in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, said many have compared the "right to be forgotten" to removing the cards from a library card catalogue while leaving books on the shelf.

"However, on the Internet, there are no shelves to browse, no way to walk through the stacks and follow the alphabet to the information you seek," he said in a statement.

"Removing lawful information from a search engine limits access to media properties, past decisions by public figures and information about many other topics. Freedom of expression is a broadly recognized — and passionately defended — right in Canada and we believe that every Canadian has the right to access lawful information."

The commissioner also repeated calls for more resources to carry out his office's critical functions.

"My office needs a substantial budget increase to keep up our knowledge of the technological environment and improve our capacity to inform Canadians of their rights and guide organizations on how to comply with their obligations," he said. 

About the Author

Kathleen Harris

Senior Writer

Kathleen Harris is a senior writer in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She covers politics, immigration, justice and corrections. Follow her on Twitter @ottawareporter