A small step towards open and transparent government
Vancouver, February 5, 2019 – The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association is pleased with the recommendations made by the province’s top watchdogs to bring the Legislative Assembly of B.C. under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act(FIPPA).
Signed by Information
and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy, Merit Commissioner Fiona Spencer, and
Ombudsperson Jay Chalke, the recommendations called for the Legislature to
“meet the same standards” that 2,900 other provincial public bodies are subject
the Legislature to freedom of information rules is a welcome sight, the move is
ultimately just one of the steps to a full reform that FIPA has been calling
for in the past two decades. “This is just one little piece of the puzzle and
there’s a whole lot of reform that we’re trying to get,” says Executive
Director Sara Neuert. “We continue to be in reactionary mode and we need to
move a step further and be proactive.”
recommendations will only act to prevent the exact same scandal from repeating
itself, more effective change would address a broader scale of freedom of
He then put forward two concepts he deemed to be main pillars of the current state of privacy: Surveillance Capitalism as discussed in Shoshana Zuboff’s new book and Bernard E. Harcourt’s study on the Expository Society.
“Privacy is a collective good. Thinking about the perils that privacy faces right now requires us to think about privacy as a democratic good.”
– Mike Larsen
The two ideas were both entirely unsurprising, yet undeniably unsettling. While the monetization of data has become fairly well-known (and seemingly accepted), Larsen disputed the belief that the collection of our digital footprint is dedicated solely to economic means like marketing and advertising. I heard noticeable gasps from around the audience when he delved into the other side of surveillance, the one we don’t talk about enough: prediction of behaviour, political sentiment, and voting practices – and information such as these can open the possibility for the steering and manipulation of the public.
discussion on the Expository Society veered towards a more academic vernacular,
the subject in its most basic nutshell did hit close to home. It is essentially
a critique on how the digital age and the dawn of social media have changed our
habits, how we have become more incentivized and inclined to share personal
information in public spaces, which in turn builds copious amounts of
about the safety of our data was a sentiment that Vonn echoed in her
discussion, stating that we create more data than most places, but
unfortunately, “we can’t really protect it.” Vonn also delved into sovereignty
and transparency, citing the lack of ability to hold government bodies
accountable, relative to the amount of access government has to our personal
information. As for tips and solutions, Vonn proposed a tactic she admittedly
described as unpopular – go analog. A self-confessed Luddite, Vonn spoke of the
security measures created by simply leaving devices like laptops (and yes, even
phones) at home when travelling or crossing the US-Canada border.
only celebrate Data Privacy Day once a year, the discussion it generates allow
for issues surrounding data, surveillance, and privacy to permeate our general
discourse. And while the meaningful action that we seek can come so few and far
between, these discussions do represent a small victory. At the end of the day,
we want as many people talking and caring about these issues. After all,
privacy is a collective good.
at Legislative Assembly demonstrates need for Law Reform
Vancouver, January 24,
2019 – The need for
reforming British Columbia’s outdated Freedom
of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) is evidenced by the
recent scandal concerning misconduct and lack of oversight at B.C.’s
made by house speaker Darryl Plecas reflect the ‘black holes’ that exist in the
transparency of government bodies, such as the legislature and office of the
Legislative Assembly is outside the jurisdiction of freedom of information
requests,” says Sara Neuert, executive director of BC Freedom of Information
and Privacy Association. “It’s a shortcoming of government transparency and
accountability. We would have learned of this sooner had we been able to place
legislature offices under scrutiny.”
amendments to the FIPPA have been repeatedly put forward by FIPA over the past
15-years. Recommendations for change were also presented in the last Special
Legislative Committee report published in May 2016 – echoing the calls for
additions such as mandating a ‘duty to document’ and administering real
repercussions to government officials who impede the FOI process. So far, the
current government has made several commitments to advancing reform, though steps
leading towards actual change have yet to arrive.
legislature offices under the dominion of FOI laws is not an impossibility and
can be enacted rather swiftly. While doing so would be a welcome step towards modernizing
the province’s FOI laws, it would ultimately be just a step. What the province
truly needs – and has needed for years – are comprehensive reforms, only then
can the government be held accountable by the taxpaying public.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has long been reshaping the way we live and this summer marked an important stride in Canada’s path to an even more digitally-driven economy and government.
From Jan. 19 to Sept. 21, Minister Navdeep Bains of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED) led a series of roundtables as part of the National Digital and Data Consultations – an initiative designed to determine how the country can move forward as a leader in digital innovation, while also maintaining the integrity of privacy rights and consent.
Though Minister Bains has expressed his enthusiasm with how technological advancements – especially AI – can position the country as a global leader in innovation, critics like national Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien have voiced their concerns about the road we seem to be heading to. “At a time when new and intrusive targeting techniques are already influencing democratic processes and data analytics, automated decision-making technologies and artificial intelligence are raising important ethical questions that have yet to be answered, Canadians need stronger privacy laws, not more permissive ones,” Therrien told Teresa Wright of The Canadian Press.
Therrien’s stance is reflective of the current climate: as developments in AI continue to shift the technological landscape, issues surrounding privacy and consent have also grown. To address concerns with the responsibility that comes with AI, Minister Bains, along with Scott Brison, President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government, noted on TechVibes that the summer-long consultations included a diverse group of attendees from academia, civil society, and industry. Moreover, in advance of the consultations, the ISED stated that the diversity mandate means that groups representing visible minorities will also be consulted with.
Data retrieved through an Access to Information Request by the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association revealed that over 65% of the people consulted came from the industry sector, academia stood at 19%, while civil society was represented by 9% of the attendees. Another 5% of the reported attendees represented local government departments of their respective cities.
Held in 16 cities across Canada, the conferences included a session in Silicon Valley in the United States, as well as phone calls with Indigenous leaders from the First Nations Technology Council and from the First Nations Information Governance Centre. Beyond the calls, only Winnipeg, Whitehorse, and, Toronto included groups dedicated to First Nations causes. Additionally, only Winnipeg and Calgary had groups that represented the inclusion of women in the tech industry, while only Vancouver had groups representing immigration. Attendees for the Silicon Valley roundtable predominantly came from the industry sector with only one representative from academia. The consultation south of the border surprisingly featured no civil society groups, despite the proximity of groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California.
Diversity may not always be the first issue to be addressed regarding AI responsibility, but Minister Bains and Minister Brison both reiterated on TechVibes that bias in AI systems is a matter that their respective departments are looking very closely at. They indicated that the issue will not be seen as solely a cause for concern, but also as a “potential for learning,” writing that since AI algorithms are comprised of real-life data, they can then be repurposed to flag human biases.
It is the complex logic that can lead to convoluted, bureaucratic messages like this:
“You may have heard media reports about bias found in some AI systems. This is a subject we are closely studying, both as an area of concern and of potential learning. We’re exploring automated methods to scan for these biases, and flag decisions for human reviewers if they are detected. But, by the same token, AI can help us to identify and avoid bias. Because AI systems are fed with real-life data, AI can actually help reveal existing human biases so we can account for them.”
Essentially, in order to maximize the capabilities of data-driven systems that deal with machine-learning and decision-making, more data is needed to be collected.
I am no Luddite. I can be fascinated and engaged with the latest tech development just as much as anyone. I like that I can have an ongoing crossword puzzle app on my smartphone, or that I can access my fantasy basketball team from just about any internet-connected device – I am very much a fan of technology as a tool. But what we are seeing here is much bigger, I dare say even dangerous. We are already well aware that data regarding online habits and behavior have been manipulated for political means, and Minister Bains said it himself, “to say that AI is coming would be to miss the fact that it’s already here.” What we don’t have are the laws and protections that will render our privacy rights impervious to the seemingly limitless capacity of AI.
Therrien’s words to the ETHI committee ring an ominous, yet rightfully cautious bell. “Individual privacy is not a right we simply trade off for innovation, efficiency or commercial gain. No one has freely consented to having their personal information weaponized against them…. Similarly, we cannot allow Canadian democracy to be disrupted, nor can we permit our institutions to be undermined in a race to digitize everything and everyone simply because technology makes this possible.”
Canada has a bridge to cross when it comes to Artificial Intelligence. Some of us are already on the other side, and that should not mean that we should allow follow suit. Last I checked, that was what democracy was all about.
BC FIPA has filed more ATI requests on this matter and we will report on our findings as the process moves.
Carlo Javier is the Community Awareness and Outreach Coordinator at BC FIPA. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies from Capilano University.