Anti-terrorism bill puts privacy [and access] at risk

Reprinted with permission from the the Toronto Star

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Monday, October 29, 2001


Toronto Star 


Dozens of government agencies collect and store sensitive information about you - your income, your employment history, your tax records, your medical claims, your immigration status, even your voting patterns.

Under law, you are allowed to see these files and request changes. You also have a legal guarantee that information about you will not be released or combined into one giant database without your permission.

These hard-won rights are relatively new and still fragile. Canada didn't have an Access to Information Act or a Privacy Act until 1983.

That is why it is so worrisome that Justice Minister Anne McLellan is proposing that she be allowed to override Canada's privacy and information laws with the stroke of a pen.

Under the government's new anti-terrorism bill, the minister would have the power to issue a certificate prohibiting any government department from disclosing information or allowing any department to release anything in its files.

This means, for instance, that you could be prevented from finding out Ottawa's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has a file on you. It means that personal information that you provided in confidence could be released without your knowledge.

Presumably, McLellan would not override the Privacy Act or the Access to Information Act frivolously. The intent of the legislation is to give the justice minister the power to protect or share information in the name of national security or international relations.

But under the anti-terrorism bill, no one would be in a position to question her actions. The two existing watchdogs, Information Commissioner John Reid and Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski, would be stripped of their powers of oversight and their ability to act as effective advocates for the public.

Naturally, the two commissioners are upset. But so should Canadians be.

There is no need to give the justice minister such sweeping powers. There are better ways to satisfy Canada's allies that information provided to Ottawa will not be divulged.

Nor is there any reason the two commissioners should be stripped of their right to review the minister's decision and recommend changes. (Neither has the power to compel the government to do anything.)

McLellan has said she is open to reasonable changes in the anti-terrorism bill. An amendment restoring the safeguards that generations of Canadians worked hard to put in place would be a good start.

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