Privacy and Freedom


The other day I was getting on an elevator in a hospital and saw a sign that said: Surveillance cameras authorized under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. To me it said a lot about how governments of Canada treat both information and privacy; they are less concerned about preserving your rights than they are on protecting their own.

Governments are by nature secretive organizations. Most bureaucrats’ stock in trade is information and they protect it like their first born child. It is not only spy agencies that operate on a ‘need to know’ basis – almost every department has their own little division which decides what can and cannot be revealed, not merely to the public but to their fellow bureaucrats.

When you look around the world there are certainly more secretive governments than Canada – though most of those aren’t democracies. It doesn’t have to be that way. The United States, for example – at least at the federal level – is much more open about decisions and the decision making process than we are here in Canada. Open government, in their view, is the hallmark of a democratic society. And I suspect they are right. Openness does promote a certain degree of accountability and caution. Mike Duffy, for example, might not be in such a pickle if his activities had been more open to view from the get go.

Of course, providing information is an onerous job, especially when you have to go through all sorts of hoops to gather it up and then censor it – making sure that only the absolute minimum required by law is released to the public. It is not uncommon for 90% of a released document under freedom of information to be redacted in black ink.

Which brings us to the issue of privacy. One of the reasons, I suspect, that governments link freedom of information to protection of privacy is to ensure they always have an excuse not to release too many details – we are protecting people’s personal information. It also justifies them collecting lots of information – we need it to provide services but you can be sure it will never be released.

Until of course it is. We’ve all heard of the horror stories of private health or tax information being revealed when it was mistakenly thrown in a dumpster or when a laptop is stolen that contained files that should never have left the office. Or, in certain strange cases, where the files of troublesome people are turned over to bureaucrats and politicians to be used as weapons against them.

With the advent of Bill C-51, things are only going to get worse. This legislation – crafted at reckless speed and in an atmosphere of raw hysteria in the wake of the Ottawa Parliament Hill attack will further erode individual privacy while strengthening the ability of government to keep secrets even from itself.

Perhaps we need to take a step back – determine how much information we really need to keep on our citizens  and start making decisions about how much really needs to hidden in what, after all, is supposed to be a public government.

But that’s ten minutes. Thanks to Louise Holland for suggesting the topic.


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