The Canadian government is maintaining a massive database on over 30
million citizens, tracking personal information such as race and income
levels in possible violation of privacy laws, claim Ottawa officials.
On Tuesday federal Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips dropped the
bombshell on the Canadian Parliament in his
report, warning that a newly discovered Human Resources Department database is “tantamount to a citizen profile” and vulnerable to misuse.
Characterized by Phillips as “extraordinarily detailed,” the government database was created in 1985 and has been continually updated ever since, containing information about nearly every living — and non-living — person in Canada, complete with as much as 2,000 pieces of information about each person’s income, race and ethnicity, marital status, education, mobility, disabilities, employment and social-assistance history.
Hinting that perhaps the office of the Privacy Commissioner had been kept in the dark about the creation of the database, Phillips, in his report, said, “Successive privacy commissioners have assured Canadians that there was no single federal government file or profile about them. We were wrong — or not right enough for comfort.”
Phillips informed Canadian lawmakers that the government’s database included information on some 33.7 million people, dead and alive. The information, he said, was gleaned from tax returns, child tax benefits, immigration and welfare files, the National Training Program, Canadian Job Strategy, employment services, employment insurance, job records and the social insurance master file — in short, from the government itself.
Statistics Canada — the only government department that regularly gathers such comprehensive information — operates under strict laws with penalties for those who misuse information.
Because there are no similar protections for citizens and restrictions on the Human Resources department, however, Phillips said the database “poses significant risks to our privacy.”
The information bank is “always open to misuse or abuse unless there are legislated, legal restraints on its use,” said Phillips, and although the law — specifically the Privacy Act — permits the gathering of personal information from citizens, Phillips said he was concerned about the comprehensive nature of the government database.
Perhaps if the information were divvied up and not concentrated under the roof of one government agency, suggested Phillips, there would be “lower risk of indiscriminate collection, unrelated uses and improper disclosures.”
Warning about the “temptation … to subject everyone to unrelenting information surveillance,” Phillips cautioned, “This database needs limits.”
Canada’s Human Resources Department responded to Phillips’ concerns by saying that it depended upon the professionalism of its staff to prevent misuse of the databank and maintained that it had not violated Canadian law.
“All the information is secure, it’s encrypted,” said Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart, adding that the data is used to ensure government programs are working.
In his report to Parliament, Phillips recommended a fixed shelf life for data, penalties for misuse, strict control on collection and legislative changes to set out the research mandate of the database.
Canadian privacy advocates have additional concerns, however — worried that the information, since it is kept on file in computers, could be hacked and disseminated or intentionally sold by the government.
“There’s a huge market out there for personal information, for marketing purposes in particular. We’ve already seen municipal and provincial governments selling databases,” said Pippa Lawson of the Public Interest Advocacy Center in Canada. “History has shown governments can go off the rails.”
Phillips said the database is virtually invisible, although it’s on a government database list and the Human Resources website.
In the U.S., similar invasions of privacy via government agencies and even the White House have rankled privacy advocates and legal watchdog groups. Some invasions, such as the super-secret
Echelon network, are more than regional; they are global.
The legal watchdog group
Watch has filed a lawsuit on behalf of former White House employee
Hall, who was allegedly fired by the administration for refusing to violate laws preventing the political use of the White House Office Database, otherwise known among staffers as “Big Brother.”
Called the brainchild of Mrs. Clinton, the computer system was, according to Judicial Watch, used to illegally track and solicit campaign contributions with the Democratic National Committee and probably to input the FBI files of Republicans and others in the Filegate scandal.