Politics

RCMP, bureaucrats rapped for improperly collecting personal info

Canada's information commissioner says Mounties and bureaucrats "breached" their duty by gathering identifying data on people who use the Access to Information Act.

Changes come after Canada's information commissioner found the practice 'arbitrary and unnecessary'

The Mounties have been rapped by Canada's information commissioner for routinely collecting the birthdates of people who ask the RCMP for information under the Access to Information Act. (RCMP)

The RCMP and federal bureaucrats have been rapped for breaching their duty by gathering identifying data on people who ask for government information.

It's the second time officials have been caught violating rules that are supposed to provide a large measure of anonymity for people who use Canada's Access to Information Act.

The Mounties and public servants have promised to stop collecting the identifying information as of this month after Canada's information commissioner found the practice to be "arbitrary and unnecessary."

Suzanne Legault, information commissioner of Canada, for the second time found that a federal online tool for processing Access to Information Act requests improperly collects personal information about requestors. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The government "has breached its duty to assist requesters without regard for their identity," concludes the report of the commissioner's year-long probe, which responded to complaints by CBC News.

The problem arises in a web-based tool that allows requestors to file and pay for official requests for government information under the Access to Information Act. The tool is currently used by 33 departments and agencies, many of them large.

Online requests cannot be completed without first indicating the requester's gender in a mandatory "title" section, where the only options are "Ms." or "Mr." And all requests made to the RCMP on the site require the requestor to provide a date of birth.

The act does not specifically authorize collecting details about the gender or date of birth of the individual making the request. And paper request forms in place since 1983, and still in use, have never required people seeking information to divulge such information.

In the past, Liberal and Conservative governments have come under fire for flagging sensitive access-to-information requests — typically from news media or opposition MPs — for special scrutiny in ministers' offices, after identifying the affiliation of the requestor.

The Trudeau government has promised broad reforms of the access-to-information system, but so far has delivered only one significant change. As of May 5 this year, all fees beyond the initial $5 application fee have been eliminated. A process to overhaul the entire Act, which has changed little since 1983, is promised starting in 2018.

Changes coming

The department responsible for the online site, Treasury Board Secretariat, told the information commissioner the practice will cease sometime this month.

The retreat marks the second time the Treasury Board has been required to fix its online tool to protect the identity of requestors. A previous version compelled requestors to indicate whether they were from the media, business, academia, an organization or the public. The paper forms had no such requirement.

In a 2013 investigation, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault's office found that the online form inappropriately collected identifying information. The Treasury Board fixed the problem by adding a "Decline to Identify" category to the web tool, allowing online requestors to withhold their affiliation.

The commissioner's latest report, dated May 18, says Legault's office did not get a satisfactory explanation about why paper-based requests had no mandatory fields for identity information but online requests did.

... this information is inconsistent with the principles of the duty to assist requestors without regard for their identity.- final report of information commissioner into improper collection of identifying information about access-to-information requestors

"While there is no other evidence to suggest that the processing of these requests was impacted by the institutions' knowledge of the gender and DOB (date of birth) of the requesters, the requirement for this information is inconsistent with the principles of the duty to assist requesters without regard for their identity," says the report.

A government-wide directive in 2010 requires institutions to process requests without regard to the identity of the person seeking records.

Treasury Board spokeswoman Kelly James says the Ms./Mr. requirement was intended only to facilitate communication.

"Departments and other federal organizations had asked for salutation information to help them better communicate with people filing access to information requests," James said in an email. The field is to be deleted this month.

An RCMP spokesman said date of birth was required only for specific kinds of requests, even though the online form required birthdate for all requests.

Data kept for 2 years

"For Access to Information Act requests, the RCMP only requires both an individual's name and date of birth when an operational file, in which a requester may be involved, for example, as a witness, is being requested to ensure positive identification," said Sgt. Harold Pfleiderer.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison's department says the online access-to-information tool will be fixed this month so that requestors are no longer compelled to provide identifying information about their sex and age. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"Otherwise, only a name is required for access to information requests."

Pfleiderer confirmed the online form will be fixed, though all identifying information of requesters collected so far will be kept on file for two years, as required under the Library and Archives Act.

The online request tool was launched on April 9, 2013, and within a year processed more than 30,000 requests. The website allows a requester to avoid a cumbersome, paper-and-cheque-based system widely in place since the law came into force in 1983.

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About the Author

Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby

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