May 4, 2014 12:02 pm

Feds lack accountability in dealing with Canadians’ private info: privacy czar

WATCH ABOVE: Interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier says more checks and balances are needed on the government’s requests for private information from cell phone and internet companies.

Canada’s privacy watchdog says there’s an accountability gap when it comes to how and why government agencies access private information.

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In an interview on the West Block with Tom Clark, Interim Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier said a lack of transparency in the system means she has no way of knowing whether government agencies and telecommunications companies are following the rules.

“We don’t know. I mean that is really the issue here is the fact that we don’t know. We were seeking some kind of specificity around this exchange (of information),” said Bernier.

Currently government departments and agencies can ask internet and cell phone companies for their customers’ private information without having a warrant and without notifying Canadians that their information is being accessed.

The law is designed this way so that in cases where there’s an immediate threat to life or national security, telecommunications companies are empowered to cooperate with law enforcement agencies, without those agencies needing to produce a warrant for information.

While this isn’t a new rule, the issue came to the forefront Wednesday after media reports found in 2011 government departments and agencies requested information nearly 1.2 million times. As privacy expert Michael Geist points out, that’s once every 27 seconds.

Despite the staggering number Bernier doesn’t dispute the need for those rules. “I agree with Canadians that in privacy law, probably there the balance is right between privacy and public safety. The point is that we need a record of that. We need accountability.”

The privacy watchdog says there’s a simple fix to what she calls an accountability gap. Her office has asked for a legislative amendment that would require all telecommunications companies to provide statistics on how often they disclose information and under what circumstances. For example, with or without a warrant.

“Then at least, we would have an idea of the scope of this practice,” said Bernier.

However, requests for more transparency in the process have so far fallen on deaf ears. Last May and again in January Canada’s Privacy Commissioner released reports calling for mandatory reporting. But the Digital Privacy Act introduced in the Senate on April 8 does not contain the legislative amendment proposed by privacy commissioner’s office.

Global News asked Industry Minister James Moore’s office whether he would consider amending the bill to include Bernier’s recommendations. His office provided the following statement: “The Minister spoke with the Privacy Commissioner Wednesday on this subject and our Government will continue conversations regarding digital privacy. In the coming weeks, Parliament will debate Bill S-4 and committees will hear from expert witnesses, including the Privacy Commissioner. We look forward to this debate on how we can best protect Canadians in our digital world.”

- With files from The Canadian Press

© Shaw Media, 2014

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