Privacy czar laments ‘crisis of trust’, cites urgent need to ensure rights

OTTAWA—High-profile, personal-data violations by Facebook, Equifax and others have highlighted like never before the urgent need to update Canada’s aging laws, the federal privacy czar says.

In his annual report to Parliament, privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said Tuesday the government must give Canadians the assurance that legislation will protect their rights in the swiftly evolving digital age.

Therrien wants new authority to issue binding orders to companies and levy fines for non-compliance with privacy law. He also wants powers to inspect the information-handling practices of organizations.

“We have a crisis of trust. Canadians want to enjoy the benefits of digital technologies, but they want to do it safely,” he told a news conference.

“Privacy is so much more than consenting or not to terms and conditions dictated by companies. It is a human right and it must explicitly be recognized as such in privacy laws.”

Canada’s laws have unfortunately fallen “significantly behind” those of trading partners with respect to privacy enforcement, the commissioner’s report said.

“At the same time, most Canadians believe their privacy rights are not respected by organizations,” it added. “This is a damning condemnation, and, in my view, an untenable situation in a country governed by the rule of law.”

Therrien denounced a federal proposal to grant his office “circumscribed” order-making powers that would require him, after identifying violations, to persuade the attorney general to further investigate and eventually bring the matter before a judge.

By contrast, Therrien’s counterparts in the United States and Europe can directly order companies to comply with the law and levy sizable fines.

“In my view, the government’s proposal is very inefficient, given it would seriously delay the enjoyment of rights by individuals to several years after they have filed a complaint,” his report said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

True order-making powers and fines would change the dynamic of the privacy commissioner’s discussions with companies during investigations, leading to quicker resolutions for Canadians, Therrien said.

He pointed to his office’s investigation of Facebook as an example of how an organization can simply ignore recommendations and “wait it out” until the courts come to the same conclusion as the commissioner. Therrien took the social-media giant to court after finding its lax practices allowed personal information to be used for political purposes.

“Both the current framework and the government’s proposal create an excellent incentive for companies not to take privacy seriously, change their practices only if forced to after years of litigation, and generally proceed without much concern for compliance with privacy laws,” he said.

Therrien also chided companies for not doing more to safeguard the private data of customers, noting breaches affected the information of millions of Canadians in the last year, something he called unacceptable.

Industry Minister Navdeep Bains noted Tuesday the government had ushered in fines for failure to report breaches. Bains also suggested Ottawa would make sure there are “strong enforcement mechanisms” consistent with Therrien’s recommendations, but he provided no specifics.

Digital technologies have also made it much easier for government to collect, share, use and store the personal information of individuals, the commissioner’s report noted.

With this in mind, Therrien recommends that federal legislation limit such collection to the information necessary for the operation of a program or activity.

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An investigation by Therrien’s office found Statistics Canada could not justify plans to collect data about Canadians’ financial transactions without their knowledge or consent. While the probe did not find StatCan broke the law, it did raise significant privacy concerns about the design of the agency’s programs.

Canadians were right to be worried given the scale of the proposed collection, the highly sensitive nature of the information and the fact the data would paint an intrusively detailed portrait of a person’s lifestyle, consumer choices and interests, Therrien said.

StatCan ultimately agreed to follow the commissioner’s recommendations not to carry out the collection projects as originally designed, and to work with his office to ensure they adequately respect privacy, the report said.