Privacy commissioner slams ‘slow to non-existent’ federal action in light of major data breaches

Canada's privacy watchdog tables annual report in Ottawa

Repeated cases where Canadians’ privacy was breached over the past year should have been a “wake-up call” for the Liberals to strengthen privacy rules.

But rather than act to give his office stronger powers to investigate breaches, progress from the government has been “slow to non-existent.”

Those are the findings of the annual report submitted to Parliament Thursday morning by Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien.

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In his report, Therrien pointed to the high-profile breaches at Equifax, Uber and Nissan Canada Finance as well as his office’s ongoing investigation into the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. He said while he has tried repeatedly to make the government see that companies and political parties should not get to decide what rules or requests for investigation they agree with, the Liberal response does not address the problem and is leaving Canadians vulnerable.

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Canada’s privacy laws must cover political parties: former privacy commissioner
Canada’s privacy laws must cover political parties: former privacy commissioner

“Sometimes it takes a crisis to effect change and this past year has seen no shortage of privacy crises,” he wrote before referencing legislation introduced earlier this year that the Liberals have argued will better protect Canadians’ privacy.

“Bill C-76, however, adds nothing of substance in terms of privacy protection. Rather than impose internationally recognized standards, the bill leaves it to parties to define the rules they want to apply. It does not impose independent oversight. On this and many other fronts, Canada’s privacy legislation is sadly falling behind what is the norm in other countries.”

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That legislation, which focuses on modernizing the Canada Elections Act, would require political parties to publish privacy policies or face deregulation.

But Therrien, former privacy commissioners and privacy experts have warned it falls significantly short and called it “a joke.”

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In his report, Therrien wrote that despite tabling the bill the government has “failed to address the lack of privacy laws governing political parties.”

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That is in reference to a refusal by the government to accept the recommendation of the committee studying Bill C-76 that political parties should be subject to federal privacy rules rather than rules of their own making when it comes to how they use, collect and share information they maintain on voters.

Right now, private companies are subject to federal privacy rules and obligated to protect consumer data.

Political parties cannot sell or share voter data they receive from Elections Canada but they are not under the same obligations to protect information they collect through other means on voters.

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What are political parties doing with our data?
What are political parties doing with our data?

Like with private companies, Therrien does not have the authority to conduct audits or lay penalties against political parties if they fail to protect private data.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who was vice-chair of that committee, introduced a private member’s bill in June that asks the government to fix that.

His bill asks that Therrien’s office be given significantly stronger powers in order to investigate and levy penalties in light of repeated privacy breaches.

Those powers would be the authority to conduct audits, make orders for subjects of its investigation to participate with the process, as well as laying penalties.

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However, the government has instead said it will not change the rules governing political parties.

Therrien said that’s not acceptable.

“I think the time is well past due for the government to introduce legislation along the same lines,” Therrien said in his report.

He is scheduled to hold a press conference on his findings Thursday afternoon.