Artificial Intelligence in Canada

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

Artificial intelligence 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.

Artificial Intelligence in Canada consultation
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 Artificial Intelligence – 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 Artificial Intelligence continue to shift the technological landscape, issues surrounding privacy and consent have also grown. To address concerns with the responsibility that comes with Artificial Intelligence, 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.

Artificial Intelligence in Canada consultation
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 Artificial Intelligence responsibility, but Minister Bains and Minister Brison both reiterated on TechVibes that bias in Artificial Intelligence 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 Artificial Intelligence 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.

Artificial Intelligence in Canada consultation
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 Artificial Intelligence 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 Artificial Intelligence.

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.

Civic duty and the values of an informed society

How the government’s action regarding the long-overdue FIPPA reform reflects our collective attitudes towards political issues

“International justice and privacy” by EFF-Graphics is licensed under CC BY 3.0 US

By Carlo Javier

We have an interesting relationship with our rights – especially those dealing with our freedom to access information and privacy. On one hand, conversations around such issues have certainly become more welcome in the general Canadian discourse, and on the other, conversations are ultimately just that – conversations.

I bring this to attention after quite an inspiring event took place at this year’s Right to Know Week. With the signed support of several important figures from Canada’s host of esteemed advocacy groups, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (BC FIPA) called on Premier John Horgan and Minister of Citizens’ Services Jinny Sims to immediately act on the long-overdue reforms for the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act (FIPPA).

Said reforms reflect recommendations made by a review committee commissioned by the Legislative Assembly in 2016, and focus on four primary pillars:

  • To do away with an ‘oral government’ and implement a ‘duty to document’ under FIPPA’s jurisdiction, which would mandate government officials to maintain accurate and detailed records of their work;
  • To refine existing provisions – especially in sections 12 and 13 – and alleviate exploitation of loopholes;
  • To bring all subsidiaries of educational and other public bodies within the scope of the FIPPA;
  • To create real repercussions for government officials who impede freedom of information rights processes.

Notably, BC FIPA asked that the law reform be implemented before the next provincial elections (2021) and that the government commit to a tangible timetable.

In their official response, Minister Sims wrote that the government is “committed to openness and transparency” and that dramatic improvements on a legislation that dictates how the government handles and shares records cannot be done with haste. Furthermore, the response included that “updating policies, regulation and legislation” are necessary tasks prior to any actual reforms. While there is no mention of the requested timetable, Minister Sims did note that feedback from their consultations with both internal and external stakeholders should arrive in the “coming months.”

The response may seem like a strategic communications reply, but it is progress nonetheless.

Among the most resonant parts of BC FIPA’s letter to Premier Horgan and Minister Sims was a critique on how government bodies tend to react to inquiries that challenge their stance on transparency, accountability, and the right to know. For the most part, responses will be rich with endearing and supportive messages of hope and promise, but empty of meaningful and substantive action – the things that lead to actual legislative changes.

One of the signatories of the letter is Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy. Toby reiterates a critical view of the government’s commitment to FIPPA reform, noting that although politicians may be keen on discussing their priorities, “concrete promises to take action” don’t exactly come as often.

“Unfortunately, Minister Sim’s letter falls precisely into this talk without walk category,” he says. “She speaks eloquently about the importance of transparency and notes that her government is ‘examining’ practically every aspect of this issue, but significantly fails to actually promise anything. We do not need another examination.”

In fairness to the government, the delay could very well be attributed to the possibility of including privacy matters and the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) to any impending reform. Such reasons would certainly be understandable considering the gravity of the act, but if the delay is ultimately just a means to stall, then it is only right for us to expect and demand for better.

According to Toby, FIPPA has been researched exhaustively and its shortcomings are all abundantly clear. BC’s FIPPA is especially lacking, scoring just 97 out of 150 in its Right to Information (RTI) Rating – putting it 14 points behind Canada’s top scoring jurisdiction in Newfoundland and 43 other countries around the globe.

By no means do I intend to be scathingly critical of government action or inaction, but what I can be critical of is how such attitudes – which some might even describe as bordering on apathetic – are eerily reflective of our collective mentality as citizens.

We deeply value our ability to protect our digital privacy and our right to access information. So much so that conversations within these issues are no longer happening exclusively among privacy and FOI advocates, but the general public, too. Just this year alone, we saw considerable uproar after Facebook came under fire for security breaches and data harvesting. The same reaction was directed to Air Canada and Statistics Canada after their own respective security and privacy practices became subject to controversy.

Maybe BC FIPA’s critique on government can be applied to society as well, speaking on transparency, accountability, and the right to know is one thing, but meaningful action is another.

It is baffling how these issues have so provocatively permeated the public discourse, yet meaningful progress have been so stagnant. The issue could be with how we see and accept the realities of our rights. Ideas that feel so personal and so close to home are infinitely more accessible than any acts and legislation full of legalese and political jargon. I have only been with BC FIPA for a short period, but I have seen the depth and the magnitude of our rights to protect our privacy and our rights to access information.

The two intrinsically linked ideas may seem inherently about the digital world, but it is a tremendous understatement to say that they are much more than that. FOI and privacy are our couriers to a true democracy. They are among the institutions that keep us well-informed and equipped to participate in the political environment. Nothing captures this notion better than the revelation that data collected through Facebook was used to manipulate voter choices in the 2016 US Presidential Elections and the Brexit campaign – two incidents that feel nothing short of violation of democratic rights.

BC FIPA’s letter to Premier Horgan and Minister Sims ends with the suggestion that quickly acting on the FIPPA reform will give the government an opportunity to exhibit “true leadership.” And if the government were to provide these reforms with the promptness and effort it deserves, maybe that approach will reflect itself in us too, as citizens, and as members of an informed society.

Actions speak louder than words and you don’t have to wait for legislative reform to take action, click here to exercise your democracy now.

Carlo Javier is the new Community Awareness and Outreach Coordinator at BC FIPA. He is a graduate of Capilano University’s School of Communications and is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Capilano Courier. 

NEWS RELEASE: Civil society groups unite for FIPPA reform

NEWS RELEASE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SEPTEMBER 26, 2018

Civil Society Groups Unite to Push for Action to Reform Freedom of Information and Privacy Legislation

Groups across Canada kick-off Right to Know Week by calling for immediate action to reform and update BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

VANCOUVER, September 24, 2018 – The BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) and other interest groups have kicked off the 2018 Right to Know Week by writing the Honourable John Horgan and Minister Jinny Sims to remind them of their commitment to improve BC’s freedom of information system.

The BC government made a number of commitments about improving information and privacy laws during the last election campaign, and have taken steps to consult the public and FOI community, but we have yet to see the introduction of legislation to reform the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) or any other concrete action.

In a previous joint letter sent to the Premier earlier this year, we outlined at least one initiative that the NDP has strongly supported during the campaign, which is to stop posting FOI requests before any information has been released. This could be eliminated without the need for legislation.

A poll conducted in January by Ipsos Canada for FIPA showed British Columbians are extremely supportive of a number of measures including creating a duty to document, penalties for violation of the law, and closing loopholes for education subsidiaries. We also note that 84% of respondents believe that FOI reforms should be put into law before the next provincial election.

“There is both a pressing need for change and a clear public mandate,” said FIPA Executive Director Sara Neuert. “We hope that you will mark this Right to Know Week by announcing – and committing to – a timetable for the introduction of a FIPPA reform bill.”

A copy of the joint letter to the Premier and Minister can be found here.

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Contact:

Sara Neuert, Executive Director
BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association
sara@fipa.bc.ca | 604-739-9788

Civil society groups kick-off Right to Know Week by calling for immediate action to reform and update FIPPA

Earlier today we sent a joint letter to Premier John Horgan and Minister Jinny Sims supporting Freedom of Information and privacy reform.

The text of the letter, signed by a number of well-known groups and individuals, is set out below. See here for the PDF copy.

September 24, 2018

The Honourable John Horgan
Premier of British Columbia
Victoria, BC

The Honourable Jinny Sims
Minister of Citizens’ Services
Victoria, BC V8W 9E2

By Email: premier@gov.bc.ca; LCTZ.Minister@gov.bc.ca

Dear Premier Horgan and Minister Sims:

Re: Reform of Freedom of Information and Privacy Legislation

This year, Right to Know Week will be celebrated the week of 24-30 September. Right to Know Week provides organizations, groups, and people across Canada an opportunity to come together to raise awareness of the importance of the right of access to government information, and to call for action with a view to strengthening and protecting this fundamental right.

We are marking 2018’s Right to Know Week by writing to you regarding the need for immediate action to reform and update BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA).

The FIPPA is outdated, and meaningful and substantive reforms are long overdue. This has been the conclusion of various studies and reports, including the 2016 Report of the Special Legislative Committee tasked with reviewing the Act. It is also our conclusion as active users and observers of BC’s Freedom of Information system. Necessary changes include:

  • Creating a real legislative ‘duty to document’ under FIPPA, to end the practice of ‘oral government’ and ensure that government officials are legally required to keep accurate, complete records of what they do on the job;
  • Tightening certain exceptions to disclosure, particularly sections 12 (cabinet records) and 13 (policy advice), including taking steps to end the abuse of these provisions;
  • Bringing all subsidiaries of educational and other public bodies within the scope of the FIPPA; and
  • Creating penalties, under the FIPPA, for government officials who interfere with freedom of information rights.

Your government has expressed a commitment to improve BC’s freedom of information system, and we know that you have taken steps to consult with the public and the FOI community (through the Spring 2018 public engagement on FOI and the ongoing Freedom of Information Rules Project conducted by the Ministry of Citizens’ Services). However, we have yet to see the introduction of legislation to reform the FIPPA.

In our experience, governments of all types and at all levels frequently speak about the importance of transparency, accountability, and the right to know, and opposition political parties often call for FOI reform. However, these claims rarely translate into meaningful actions to improve the legislation that supports our right to know.

There is an opportunity for your government to show true leadership in this area by bringing forward legislation to reform the FIPPA. We note that 84% of respondents in a 2018 Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of BC FIPA believe that FOI reforms should be put into law before the next provincial election. There is both a pressing need for change and a clear public mandate for it. We hope that you will mark this Right to Know Week by announcing – and committing to – a timetable for the introduction of a FIPPA reform bill.

We are available to work with your government to help bring about positive changes to protect the information rights of all British Columbians and build a stronger democracy.

Yours Truly,

 

 

 

 

Sara Neuert
Executive Director, BC FIPA

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Larsen
President, BC FIPA

 

Micheal Vonn, Policy Director, BC Civil Liberties Association
Darrell Evans, Executive Director (volunteer), Canadian Institute for Information and Privacy Studies Society
Kris Constable, President, Canadian Institute for Information and Privacy Studies Society
Tamir Israel, Staff Lawyer, Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic
Randy Christensen, Staff Lawyer, EcoJustice
John Hinds, President and Chief Executive Officer, News Media Canada
Beth Clarke, Development and Program Director, Wilderness Committee
Vincent Gogolek, FOI and Privacy Expert,
Toby Mendel, Executive Director, Centre for Law and Democracy
Stanley Tromp, Journalist
Robyn Laba, Senior Researcher, Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs
Laura Tribe, Executive Director, OpenMedia