Review of privacy laws underway

Privacy commissioner: complaints on the rise, personal data increasingly at risk

Now is the time for British Columbians to share concerns about how their personal information is being used in the age of big data.

A public consultation process on the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA), which governs how private sector organizations can collect, use and disclose personal information, started on June 24 with calls for written submissions and public input until Sept. 19.

Public hearings are scheduled for Sept. 8-9.

An all-party committee of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia is undertaking the review of B.C.’s private sector privacy legislation.

“We are holding a public consultation to gather important information on how well the act is working, and whether changes are necessary,” says committee chair and Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier.

The province’s privacy commissioner made an initial written submission to the committee on May 28. In it, Elizabeth Denham noted privacy complaints to her office have increased 50 per cent since 2009.

“Because of sweeping technological change, there has been a seismic shift in the nature and amount of personal information held by private sector organizations since private sector privacy law was first enacted.

“We have also been radically transformed into a society where much of our lives are lived online. The result of this quantum leap in the collection, use and disclosure of information is new data security risks.”

Denham recommends stronger laws should be enacted to ensure companies notify people of security breaches involving their information.

“The single most significant tool to improve awareness and oversight, in my view, is mandatory breach notification. It would help to get privacy breaches out in the open.”

Smartphones and mobile devices, Google Streetview and Google Glass, and large databases created by companies, such as eBay, Target and Sony, on the buying habits of customers are examples mentioned in the submission about how technological change has altered the personal data and privacy landscapes.

Also troubling is the disclosure of personal information to a government or law enforcement agency without a warrant, Denham noted in the submission.

“Although there are many legitimate situations where police and other law enforcement agencies need access to personal information, the scope, purpose and impact of these warrantless disclosures requires parliamentary and public debate.”

Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett is a member of the review committee. She was present for Denham’s submission and says the privacy commissioner had a lot of interesting things to say.

Barnett adds there are many pieces to PIPA and “access” to information is another concern.

“The only way you find out [if the act is working well, what needs improvement, what needs to change] is by going out and asking the people.”

She calls the review a “learning experience” for her and says it will help the provincial government address questions and concerns from some of the 300,000 businesses, charities, associations, trade unions, and trusts the legislation covers.

“It’s a very good opportunity to learn things you need to know and should know.”

Micheal Vonn is the BC Civil Liberties Association policy director. She says “we’re in a whole new realm” with respect to creating personal data and what constitutes personal information.

Where, in the past, the definition of personal information – name, address, phone number and medical information for example – was straight forward, that answer is more nuanced today.

“Because so many companies are interested in what is called the ‘big data revolution,’ part of what’s happening is we’re not just using information in a straightforward fashion, but we’re data-mining and using data analytics.”

Vonn says her organization will make a submission to the committee that will talk about the “balance between privacy and freedom of expression.”

She adds PIPA has been “loosened” over the years by private companies lobbying the government and looking for more leeway in how they collect data, which they can use for advertising and commercial purposes.

“It’s very important the public make its voice heard. You can make your point heard now better than you could make it at any other time.”

To participate in the review or learn more about PIPA visit

The last review of PIPA was in 2008.


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