Requesting personal information from the Federal Government
Personal information held by the Government of Canada and its institutions is covered by the Privacy Act. It gives Canadians the right to access personal information held by the government and protection of that information against unauthorized use and disclosure.
How do I request my personal information?
You can request your personal information held by the Government of Canada and its institutions under the Privacy Act. The Privacy Act protects personal information from unauthorized collection, use and disclosure.
To request your personal information, follow these steps:
Step 1: Decide which federal government institution is most likely to hold personal information about you. If you are not sure, Info Source can guide you.
Step 2: Decide whether you would like to file an informal request or formal request under the Privacy Act.
If you decide to make an informal request, write to the government institution’s Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator. Provide them with the following information:
- Your name and address
- The type of information you are seeking (subject matter, date range, type of records, etc.)
If you decide to file a formal request under the Privacy Act, you must download and fill out the Personal Information Request Form, which you can obtain on this page. You will be asked for your language preference, your name and contact information, and to describe the information you are looking for. To make a formal request under the Privacy Act, you must use a Personal Information Request Form.
Step 3: Mail your letter or form to the government institution’s Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator. You can also contact them with any questions. If you are not sure who the Access and Privacy Coordinator is , you can try checking the website of the institution that you want to request personal information from. Government websites often have a link on the site marked “privacy” that includes the institution’s Access and Privacy Coordinator’s address and phone number. Note that Personal Information Request Forms are not accepted by email.
Is there a fee?
There is no fee for submitting a request for access to personal information under the Privacy Act.
How is access granted?
You are allowed to see the information or receive a copy and you may choose to receive the information in either English or French. In certain circumstances you can receive the information in an alternative format (such as if you have a disability and cannot see a paper record). If you want to receive the information in an alternative format, you should let the Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator know that in your information request.
Does it matter who you are or why you want the information?
You must prove your identity in order to get access to your personal information. But the reasons why you want the information are generally irrelevant and your rights should not be affected by what you want to do with the information.
The government’s Policy on Privacy Protection specifies that the fact you requested access to your personal information is confidential and should not be disclosed except when there is specific legal authorization and there is a clear need to know to perform duties and functions related to the Privacy Act.
What are the time limits for replying?
Under the law, all or most of the information you ask for should be disclosed within 30 days of receiving the request. If a time extension is required, you should be notified within the first 30 days and told why up to another 30 days may be needed.
What if government doesn’t reply within the time limits?
If the government institution fails to reply in time it will be deemed to have refused to give access. But remember that the time limits do not start to run until you have made a request that is detailed enough for the institution to understand what you are looking for. Make your request as clear as you can, so that the 30 day period will start when the institution receives your initial request.
When can your request for access be refused?
The Privacy Act includes several grounds for refusing a request for access contained in Sections 18-28; Section 69 (which applies to libraries, museums and archives); and Section 70 (which applies to the Privy Council and Cabinet).
These are some of the situations in which the government is allowed to refuse to give you access to your personal information:
- The personal information was obtained in confidence from another government (s. 19);
- Granting access would be injurious to the conduct of federal-provincial affairs, international affairs, the defence of Canada or the enforcement of a law of Canada (s. 20 – 22);
- The information was prepared or obtained in the context of a criminal or national security investigation (s. 20);
- The information is subject to solicitor-client privilege (s. 27) (i.e., the information is part of legal advice or is needed for a court case);
- The personal information relates to the physical or mental health of the person who made the request and it would be contrary to his or her best interests to see the information (s. 28) (this is intended for rare circumstances);
- The personal information is in an exempt personal information bank (s. 18);
- Disclosure would threaten the safety of an individual (s. 25);
- The information is personal information about another individual (s. 26).
If your request is refused, what does the institution have to tell you?
The government institution is not required to tell you whether the information exists or not if it refuses your request for access. However, it does have to tell you what grounds it would have for refusing your request if the information did exist. It also has to inform you that you can make a complaint to the Privacy Commissioner about the refusal if you wish.
Do you have a right to request a correction?
If you believe the information that a federal institution has on file about you is untrue or misleading, you may ask to have it corrected. Normally the request for correction is made after you have requested and received access to your personal information, so that you could first confirm the information the government institution had on file and decide whether it is accurate or not. You must then make your correction request specific and clear.
What if government refuses to make the correction?
Even if the institution does not agree to change this information, it must make a note that you have asked for the change and attach it to the file.
What if the incorrect information has been given to another government agency or department?
You also have a right to require that any person or body who received the personal information for an administrative purpose in the two year period before your request is told of your request for correction, and whether the information was corrected or not.
If it was a government institution that received the information, it must also make the correction, or make a note of the request, in its record.
Where is my personal information held?
Government institutions are required to organize personal information into a ‘Personal Information Bank’ so that it is retrievable by name, identifying number or symbol. Personal Information Banks provide a summary of the type of personal information held by government institutions.
If you are able to, it is helpful to identify the Personal Information Bank that has the information you want. Looking up the types of Personal Information Banks the government institution has can also help you think about what other information that institution might have that you want access to.
If you don’t know which Personal Information Bank to reference, simply include enough description about the personal information you want so that the institution can identify the information within its records.
The government website Info Source is a helpful reference tool when trying to find out where your information is located. Using Info Source can be a bit confusing at first, but it does contain a lot of useful information. For example, if you have never been a government employee and you want access to your personal information held by a particular department but you don’t know what they might have, you could start by looking at Sources of Federal Government Information. This publication has a separate chapter for each government institution, and each chapter includes a detailed list of all of the Personal Information Banks held by that institution and their contents.
Info Source also contains Sources of Federal Employee Information, which is a publication listing personal information banks related to federal employees; a Directory of Federal Government Enquiry Points, which is a directory of Federal Government Enquiry Points with the contact information for approximately 250 government institutions; and Access to Information Act and Privacy Bulletins, which contain summaries of federal court cases and statistics of access requests.
The description of a Personal Information Bank is filled with a lot of useful information about the type of personal information in the bank and who it is about, and about what you need to say in your Personal Information Request Form to make sure you can get access to it. Looking up the types of Personal Information Banks the government institution has can also help you think about what other information that institution might have that you want access to.