Commissioner’s Order protects privacy while promoting democratic values

Vancouver, August 30, 2019 – Yesterday, the Information and Privacy Commissioner for BC, Michael McEvoy, issued an Order stating that BC’s privacy laws apply to the electoral district associations of federal political parties, despite their contestations.

The Order affirms that all organizations in BC, including those created by federal political parties, must be held to the same standard when it comes to the protection of privacy. Under BC’s Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA), individuals have the right to know what personal information is in the possession of an organization, how this information is used, how it has been acquired, and where it has been shared.

Until yesterday’s Order, federal political parties operated as if they were not subject to any privacy laws that grant people these vital information rights, which in turn negatively affects both privacy and Canada’s democratic values. Electoral politics are increasingly shaped by big data. The Cambridge Analytica scandal gave the public a glimpse into how data collection, database development, and micro-targeting have become key components in political parties’ electoral toolkits.

“It is our position that the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information by political parties at any level should be subject to strong and enforceable privacy legislation,” says Mike Larsen, FIPA President. “People should have a right to know how political parties are using their personal information, and collection and use should be based on the principle of informed consent.”

FIPA was issued a notice of hearing in this case and made a submission that challenged the argument that the application of PIPA to a federal electoral district association would infringe on the Charter of Rights Freedoms, which Commissioner McEvoy has agreed with. In the next phase of this process, the Commissioner will consider whether the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information by the electoral district association complies with PIPA.

Contact:

Mike Larsen, President

BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association

Email: fipa (at) fipa.bc.ca

Phone: 604-739-9788

Whistleblower Accusations Highlight Need for Legislative Reform

Vancouver, May 17, 2019 – Question period in the BC Legislature this week has been occupied by the accusations of a whistleblower who claims that the Minister of Citizens’ Services, Jinny Sims, has been using her personal email address to conduct government business in order to circumvent Freedom of Information laws.

This is particularly troublesome as Minister Sims oversees the administration of those very laws and made a public apology only one year ago for a similar indiscretion.

During question period this week, Attorney General David Eby stated that the Office of the Information and Privacy (OIPC) Commissioner was the correct place to investigate accusations of this nature.

However, a statement today from the OIPC indicates that they are unable to investigate these claims.

“The Minister’s alleged failure to fulfill her duty to document is not a matter under my authority,” writes Commissioner Michael McEvoy of the OIPC. “This is a significant shortcoming of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).”

Legislative changes that recently came into effect, which Minister Sims characterized as a duty to document, give Minister Sims—not the OIPC—the authority to ensure compliance.

“As it now stands, the Information Management Act designates the Minister herself as primarily responsible for ensuring her Ministry’s compliance with the duty to document decisions,” writes Commissioner McEvoy. “Citizens would find it very surprising that, on its face, the current law makes a Minister responsible for investigating her own conduct.”

The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) supports the Commissioner’s call for government to keep its promise of reforming FIPPA to include a duty to document that provides independent oversight so that citizens can be assured that government is accountable.

“John Horgan has promised FIPPA reform. He has promised that his government will do better,” says Sara Neuert, FIPA’s Executive Director. “The citizens of British Columbia need him to keep that promise. Including the duty to document in the FIPPA will build public trust by providing independent oversight.”

“The accusations of the whistleblower demonstrate that this isn’t happening fast enough and that we require timelines to ensure that John Horgan is keeping his promise. The time for action is now.” says Neuert.

Contact:

Sara Neuert, Executive Director

BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association

Email: fipa (at) fipa.bc.ca

Phone: 604-739-9788

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NDP celebrates Liberal’s ineffective ‘Duty to document’

Image of Jinny Sims courtesy of BC NDP and used under CC-by-2.0

Vancouver, April 1, 2019A statement released yesterday by the Ministry of Citizens’ Services, which claims that “new legislative changes improve transparency and accountability for British Columbians,” is a significant misrepresentation of an effective duty to document and is a distraction from the pressing reforms that are necessary for BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

Creating a legislated duty to document within FIPPA has been called for by an all-party Special Legislative Committee that reviewed the Act in 2016, and by Information and Privacy Commissioners David Loukidelis and Elizabeth Denham.

These “new” legislative changes that NDP Minister Jinny Sims is promoting were actually initiated by the Liberal party in 2017. At that time, FIPA issued a press release that called the Liberal bill “a sad excuse for action on creating a duty to document government decisions” in the wake of the Triple Delete scandal that revealed an organized campaign to destroy government records.

In fact, the NDP put forward a private member’s bill at that time that proposed an actual duty to document in comparison to the Liberal’s ineffective bill.

In a statement issued by the Ministry of Finance in 2017, Liberal Minister Michael de Jong had claimed that their ineffective bill would “formalize this good practice in legislation while ensuring that British Columbia remains at the forefront of information management with strong oversight and consistent practice across government.”

Now, two years later, NDP Minister Jinny Sims is claiming that the same ineffective legislative change also “formalizes government’s obligation to document decisions and helps ensure records of decisions are available and accessible.”

The statements from the NDP and Liberal MLAs, made two years apart, are remarkably similar and entirely misleading. FIPA wants to see the creation of a meaningful duty to document—more in line with what the NDP was proposing two years ago—which would include:

  • The creation of mandatory documentation procedures. A discretionary duty to document is not sufficient.
  • Clear oversight from the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
  • The legislative change should be to the FIPPA, which affects over 2,900 public bodies, not the Information Management Act, which merely affects 41.

Contact:

Sara Neuert, Executive Director

BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association

Email: fipa (at) fipa.bc.ca

Phone: 604-739-9788

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The SINs of the Speculation and Vacancy Tax

Image of luxury tax square on monopoly board

We’ve been hearing from a lot of British Columbians who are concerned about sharing their Social Insurance Number (SIN) with the Ministry of Finance in the administration of the new Speculation and Vacancy Tax.

The Social Insurance Number is a sensitive piece of personal information that should only be provided under very specific circumstances. The concern from the public centers around the justification of the provincial government in asking for this information.

In order to provide more information to the public, we’ve reached out to the Ministry of Finance about where they draw the authority to request SINs, why they are necessary in the administration of the new tax, and how this information is going to be kept secure.

Before proceeding with the Ministry of Finances response, a general familiarization with two pieces of provincial legislation is useful: The first is with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act , which delineates how public bodies collect, use, and store personal information; and the second is the Speculation and Vacancy Tax Act, which outlines the administration of the new tax.

What follows is a response from the Ministry of Finance:

Authority to Collect SIN:

Social Insurance Numbers (SIN) are fundamental to British Columbia and Canada’s taxation system.  The Speculation and Vacancy Tax Act, subsection 64(1) authorizes the administrator to collect information from property owners through the annual declaration in order to administer the act.  Requiring personal information, including the SIN, is necessary for the administrator to determine tax liability, identifying whether property owners pay income taxes in Canada and whether an individual may be eligible for a tax exemption or BC tax credit. 

Why the SIN is being collected:

The collection of SIN is crucial to identify whether home owners pay tax in Canada and to confirm residency information.  This information is relevant to ensure individuals that live in their home, and are eligible, receive the principal residence exemption.  In addition, residency information is required to determine the amount of tax an individual is subject to, and, if applicable, the amount of speculation and vacancy tax credit an individual may receive.

How information is kept secure:

The SIN is one piece of personal information that is collected through the online declaration application.  eTaxBC is the online secure government application that is used for the declaration process.  All information entered into eTaxBC is encrypted at the time of entry.  Once a SIN is collected it is masked and the ability for employees to view the number is controlled by security access on a need to know basis. The personal information that is collected under the Speculation and Vacancy Tax Act is protected in a manner consistent with the BC Government’s Information Security Policy, Federal Security Standards, and provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

– The Ministry of Finance