22 Aug 2008

A clarification on court decisions

Speaking at the Canadian Bar Association Conference earlier this week, the Privacy Commissioner talked about the privacy implications of courts and administrative tribunals posting to the web decisions and other documents containing personal information.

While her speech generated a handful of articles, her comments created a bit of a stir when one newspaper article misinterpreted what she had said, suggesting that the Commissioner was proposing that all court decisions be scrubbed of personal information before being made widely available.  Of course, neither the Privacy Act nor the Commissioner’s mandate applies to the courts.  In her speech, the Commissioner was actually discussing the legal obligations of government institutions subject to the Privacy Act. (You can read the transcript of her speech here.)  These institutions have tended to evoke the practices of the courts as a justification for the disclosure of personal information, a tendency that inspired the Commissioner’s remarks.  Other interpretations of the Commissioner’s comments better capture her concerns.

Below is the commissioner’s letter to the Toronto Star which appeared yesterday morning.

Re: Hide IDs in court rulings, privacy chief says, Aug. 20

I am writing to correct a false impression left by the article. My mandate does not extend to the courts. However, it is interesting to note that they, like my office, have been wrestling with the issue of posting personal information online. My role is to ensure that federal administrative tribunals respect the privacy rights of Canadians.

Ordinary Canadians provide their personal information to these tribunals for various reasons. They may, for instance, be seeking access to a government benefit or reparation for an alleged government mistake.

A law-abiding citizen fighting for a government benefit should not be forced to expose her medical history or other highly sensitive personal information to public scrutiny. They should not have to abandon their privacy rights.

My office has recently investigated complaints about the online posting of personal information by several administrative tribunals. We expect to release our findings in these cases in the fall.

Jennifer Stoddart, Privacy Commissioner of Canada

7 Responses

Heidi Lein Says:

Thanks for your work. The video on social network sites was fascinating and frightening.

There was also an article discussing the loss of idealism with the loss of privacy. That silence is the new norm – blind acceptance, blending in. No wonder that student lambasting Kerry got tazered. Going with the flow may very well take us over the falls.

Again, thank you. Keep up the good fight.

Heidi Lein

John H. Cameron Says:

Access to all lawful databases is a given these days. Good speech.

In the areas of National Security….post 9/11 laws protecting companies from rendering assistance to law enforcement is now an issue in the United States and I’m sure Canada. Thank God for the recently passed laws on this issue in the US and wherever they are put in place. So that means pre
9/11 are: Grandfathered? Correct? LOL

josephine Ledoux Says:

Je suis juriste et tiens très sincèrement à féliciter la Commissaire pour son courage, son bon sens et sa clairvoyance sur une question aussi sensible qu’importante. La Loi sur la protection de la vie privée est une loi à valeur quasi constitutionnelle. À l’ère d’internet de des nouvelles technologies, il est fondamental de trouver un juste équilibre entre le droit à l’information et la protection des renseignements personnels. L’idée que des tribunaux administratifs puissent à leur guise, mettre sur Internet des décisions qui comportent des détails sur la vie intime ou non des personnes est absurde et totalement inacceptable dans nos sociétés démocratiques. En clair, c’est ni plis ni moins qu’une intrusion totalitaire dans la profonde intimité des personnes.

Avec Internet qui met en oeuvre des techniques ésotériques et instantanées, c’est avec une facilité déconcertante que l’on peut pénétrer dans votre vie privée et faire usage de certains renseignements disponibles sur internet pour des fins autres que ceux auquels ils étaient destinés.

Les recherches suggèrent aujourd’hui que le développement des nouvelles technologies a permis l’intégration et la centralisation d’informations confidentielles privées et qu’un renseignement personnel inséré dans une banque de données ou un site internet, puis dévoilé, ne peut être considéré comme un bien exclusif car, une fois qu’il est divulgué, nul ne peut contraindre ceux qui en ont pris connaissance à l’oublier.

La plupart des tribunaux administratifs ont encore énormement de difficulté aujourd’hui à démontrer en quoi le prélèvement d’informations personnelles de leurs décisions les empêche d’atteindre les objectifs qui sont les leurs. La société évolue, et avec elles, les pratiques aussi. Il est malheureux de constater qu’on aoit encore obligé de l’expliquer à certaines personnes.

BlackStar Says:

Legally, the Commissioner’s points should be accepted. “Educational value” of tribunal decisions is fully achieved by initials instead of real names. The public’s interest in real names is more likely curiosity than legitimate “public interest”. As “right to privact” has repeatedly been included in the Charter rights by the highest court, the infringement of the privacy should be limited to as minimal as possible by applying “Oakes test”.

Jonathan Schaeffer Says:

The growing sophistication of search engines highlights how much easier it has become to find specific information online. The fact that private information contained in federal tribunal rulings is being spread through the internet is inacceptable. Privacy needs mor protection and Privacy commissioner needs teeth. You guys are doing a great job. Keep up the good work.

Jonathan Schaeffer

Denis Rasmussen Says:

It’s important to realise that the Internet is international and largely unregulated. We live in an age where fragments of information are being gathered and scattered across the internet. Details about one’s private life on the Internet can become more permanent digital baggage. An entire generation is growing up in very different world, one where people will accumulate detailed records beginning with childhood that will stay with them for life wherever they go. I am surprised to hear that several administrative tribunals are posting personal information online. As long as privacy is undervalued as constitutional right, it will be difficult to argue that its protection is worth the effort. And as long as privacy is undervalued, it will be difficult to justify harsh penalties for those who willfully breach it for their own petty purposes. Thanks to Ms Stoddart for her courage and honor for defending our freedoms!

Jonathan Mitchell QC >> Anonymity and privacy in case reporting in Scotland Says:

[…] of compulsion or exigency the word ‘necessary’ is placed“. [back]See also ‘A clarification on court decisions‘; ‘Anonymization of parties’ names in Canadian case law?‘ and ‘Online […]

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