A step towards accountability

Media Release

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 to. 

While opening 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.”

These recommendations will only act to prevent the exact same scandal from repeating itself, more effective change would address a broader scale of freedom of information reform.

The Special Committee to Review the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) drafted in May of 2016 has made calls for a comprehensive reform, which would include the enactment of a Duty to Document, penalties for interference, and addressing the exceptions and loopholes that can be routinely exploited during any FOI proceedings.

These comprehensive reforms are the only measures that will provide government transparency and establish a system of accountability that will prevent future government scandals from occurring.

Contact:

Sara Neuert, Executive Director

BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association

Email: fipa (at) fipa.bc.ca

Phone: 604-739-9788

-30-

Democratic implications of privacy issues take centre stage at ‘Privacy in Peril’

By Carlo Javier

It was fitting to end Data Privacy Day on Jan. 28 with a talk called Privacy in Peril.

Organized by the Vancouver Public Library and the SFU Library, the event saw Mike Larsen of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) and Micheal Vonn of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) cast a light on modern issues surrounding data, surveillance, and privacy.

Larsen opened the discussions with a statement that might best capture the complicated nature of privacy amidst our increasingly digital and interconnected world: “Privacy is a collective good. Thinking about the perils that privacy faces right now requires us to think about privacy as a democratic good.” The principle is especially critical of the framework often used to analyze privacy – one that isolates issues as strictly individual-based cases (think consent forms, website cookie policy notifications). Larsen’s suggestion is to look at privacy with a holistic perspective and to see how privacy rights have implications not only to an individual, but to many other agents that may either be directly or indirectly involved.

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.

Micheal Vonn (left) of the BCCLA and Mike Larsen (right) of BC FIPA discusses the complicated state of privacy amidst an increasingly digital and interconnected society.

Although the 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 vulnerable data.

The concern 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.

Although we 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.

Eager to get involved in the fight for our rights? Click here to join the cause.

Carlo Javier is the community awareness and outreach coordinator at BC FIPA. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies from Capilano University.

Caution is necessary as artificial intelligence continues to shift the Canadian digital economy

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.

Attendee breakdown of the ISED’s National Digital and Data Consultations from this past summer. Data was gathered from an ATI request by BC FIPA.

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.

Attendance diversity from the four most popular consultations.

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.

The ISED’s National Digital and Data Consultations included a stop in Silicon Valley.

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.

Updated: Two pieces of scotch tape that show why Statistics Canada doesn’t care about your privacy

***

Update:

As of December 3rd, 2018, one week following the publication of this blog post, and a couple of weeks after more than 400 Canadians exercised their privacy rights and requested their personal information through an OpenMedia campaign that FIPA assisted with, Statistics Canada has announced that they are suspending their practice of obtaining personal credit records from TransUnion and are delaying their plans to access the banking details of 500,000 Canadians.

Information contained in this blog post was cited in an article in the Globe and Mail that originally broke the story. 

***

I wish that was some kind of elaborate metaphor.

When I heard that Statistics Canada had been accessing the credit scores of Canadians, I wanted to find out if I was affected. I filed a request under the Privacy Act for “any records or data related to me that was received by Statistics Canada from TransUnion,” which is one of Canada’s two credit bureaus.

As someone interested in privacy and privacy rights, I was curious as to why Statistics Canada would be interested in my personal financial information and how they would safeguard it.

The offending envelope, replete with scotch tape and addressed to the wrong person.

The letter I received confirmed that Statistics Canada had, in fact, accessed my complete credit history. It was apparently protected though; the letter went on to explain that any personal information that could identify me had been scraped from my financial information. They had only recombined the information and re-identified me in order to fulfill my request (Click on the image to the below right to read the full letter).

Then they tucked these sensitive records, which contain my complete credit profile, into an envelope, attempted to close it with two pieces of scotch tape, and sent it to me in the mail.

Two pieces of scotch tape.

Forget for the moment that I had asked for electronic copies of my records and that Statistics Canada made a choice to print this sensitive financial information and send it through the mail.

Please also forget that the envelope was addressed to the wrong person.

Click the image to read about Statistics Canada’s “essential security” measures

Because I’m able to open the package, read the letter from Statistics Canada detailing the importance of safeguarding my personal financial information, flip through several pages that contain my Social Insurance Number, birth date, address, contact information, all of my banking information, including available credit, debts, accounts, balances, and more—and then I’m able to seal the envelope closed again with those same two pieces of scotch tape.

I would never know if this envelope had been opened prior to arriving at my residence.

If Statistics Canada does, in fact, take privacy seriously and does believe that it can responsibly hold the detailed and sensitive financial records of Canadians, then it needs to be able to comply with the Privacy Act in a way that doesn’t mean sacrificing privacy. That is the tragically ironic position that Statistics Canada finds itself in.

Here is one possible solution that Statistics Canada could consider employing as an additional “essential security measure”: Send an encrypted CD-ROM through the mail and provide a password in a separate letter or through email. This two-step authentication method means that anyone who interrupts the original package won’t have access to the sensitive records that Statistics Canada holds.

It would also mean providing access to the records through the means that I had initially requested.

The back of the envelope shows an intact seal.

But Statistics Canada made a choice about how they were going to respond to the request that I made through the Privacy Act. In doing so, they both fulfilled my request and put my privacy at tremendous risk. Perhaps, they were trying to send a message: Don’t bother us about our security measures if you want your data to be kept safe.

But alas, there is a saying that goes something like, “Attribute not to malice what can be attributed to incompetence.” This example illustrates why Statistics Canada shouldn’t have access to the sensitive financial information of 500,000 Canadians.

In era where trust in public bodies is eroding, and progressive technologists look towards adopting decentralized models like block chain, our government needs to be rebuilding trust. For Statistics Canada, that starts with taking decisive steps towards protecting the privacy of Canadians, of doing the fundamental work to earn the trust of its stakeholders.

And, quite frankly, two pieces of scotch tape won’t cut it.

Bryan Short is the Program Director at BC FIPA. He holds a master’s degree in Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of British Columbia.