Arguments about the right to information should be resolved by reference to its role in protecting the fundamental interests of citizens, and not by reference to the history or structural characteristics of the institution holding the contested information.
Information watchdogs, researchers, media and others say government, institutions keeping citizens in the dark even as opportunities for transparency increase.
A good long form piece about the existing deficits in Canada’s access to information policies and laws. These laws are designed to let Canadians understand their governments and hold them to account. Unfortunately, our laws have become so atrophied that they are often more helpful for getting documents of some (routinely minor) historical import instead of getting documents that can meaningfully enable citizens to be active in their democracies.
From a National Post article, published in 2012, we get a taste of the governments’ existing surveillance capabilities and activities:
The intimate information in medical files might include: erectile dysfunction, anti-psychotic medication, HIV tests, addictions, body mass index, the times you sought help because of stress, depression or sexual trauma. Health records can include psychiatric counselling.
And it isn’t just information about the person named on the file. They contain concerns expressed about a spouse’s drinking or infidelity or drug use by their child; the times they vented about their unstable boss.
Aren’t these out of the hands of anyone other than health-care providers?
Ask Sean Bruyea. The Gulf War veteran found his health records, including psychiatric reports, had been passed around by bureaucrats and sent to a Cabinet Minister in an apparent bid to discredit the outspoken critic.
Financial records are similarly sensitive: how much you earn, how much you donate to charity, which charities you choose, bankruptcy declarations, who you owe money to.
Financial data in government hands include income tax records, pension information, child tax benefits and much more. Anyone who has received a cheque from the government for any reason or ever paid money to the government is now in a database.
Corporate and business registration, federally and provincially, also requires a lot of personal and financial information. Credit card records offer a detailed profile of spending habits. Although privately held, a court order sees them turned over.
“You can find almost anyone and learn an awful lot about them if you have their credit history,” said a former police officer who now works for a provincial government.
There are also the enormous databanks of the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FinTRAC), a government agency collecting and disclosing information on suspected money laundering and terrorist financing.
Banks, life insurance companies, securities dealers, accountants, casinos, real estate brokers and others who deal with cash are obligated to report the deals or attempted deals under certain circumstances.
“Behaviour is suspicious, not people,” is FinTRAC’s mantra.
Extensive student records exist on most Canadians, including government student loans.
Local school boards and provincial education ministries have recorded your marks, attendance, illnesses, notes from teachers to parents and notes from home to the school. Many jurisdictions are moving to creating a complete, portable account of each student that follows the person from class to class, school to school.
Like head lice in a shared toque, it never goes away.
Law-enforcement databanks allow officers anywhere to check if a person is dangerous or a fugitive. Databanks such as the Canadian Police Information Centre lists criminal convictions, warrants and other important interactions with police. Also flagged are “emotionally disturbed persons” and those who are HIV-positive.
But there is, increasingly, much more to police databanks, with almost anyone who has a police encounter being entered into one.
It is hard to muster worry that a convicted killer or child molester is flagged in a police computer, but what about you being embedded there for complaining about a noisy party or reporting stolen property?
The PRIME-BC police database contains the names of more than 85% of B.C. residents, according to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which warns citizens could be passed up for jobs and volunteer positions because of misleading red flags. In Alberta, TALON, a new, $65-million database, is also raising concerns.
Manitoba, under Mr. Toews when he was the province’s attorney-general, was a trailblazer in recording interaction with young men to note markers of gang activity to help identify and declare them as gang members.
The Toronto-area forces have an enormous, shared combined database.
Federally, also, those convicted of certain offences are ordered to submit their DNA to the DNA databanks, perhaps the ultimate baring of your identity.
Passport Canada, an agency of Foreign Affairs Canada, keeps a large repository on citizens, including facial-recognition biometrics, those who vouched for your passport application and all trips abroad as well as visa applications.
Canada Border Services Agency keeps track of who is crossing our borders, including where you go and who arrives to visit you.
Recall that thin slip of card for customs you filled out on the airplane when returning to Canada. You wrote your name, address, travelling companions, passport number, where you went, how long you stayed and what you bought.
Those cards — its catalogue of booze and tobacco and all — are kept and can be forwarded to police or other government agencies.
The Field Operations Support Systems, used by border and immigration agents, track all immigration-related information.
The Computer Assisted Immigration Processing System tracks every immigration application being processed by overseas offices, including family history, assessment notes, appeals status and concerns raised by citizenship staff.
Both of these large databanks are being consolidated into the Global Case Management System. The consolidation is but one example of the government’s drive of integrating data.
Provincial ministries regulating driver’s licences hold a bevy of information, including medical information, address, photograph and its biometric information for facial recognition, driving and vehicle records.
This summer, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia caused an uproar by offering biometric data from its database to police to help identify participants in the Stanley Cup riot. Critics blasted the potential use of data collected for one purpose for a distinctly different one.
Automatic Licence Plate Recognition (ALPR) creates another powerful tool for surveillance.
Pitched as a way of finding stolen cars and kidnapped children, the technology has appeal, but the portable devices that read hundreds of passing licence plates every minute and runs them through registration databases to attach it to an owner is causing concern.
Scanned pictures can be stamped with GPS co-ordinates, date and time information and stored in a database. It can track cars coming and going from any destination.
In Britain, there have been wide complaints of police using ALPR to stop vehicles coming or going to political protests. Privacy watchdogs in B.C. uncovered that among those automatically targeted by the RCMP’s ALPR included everyone who has gone to court to establish legal custody of a child, all who had a mental health problem that received police attention, and those linked to others under investigation.
Information collected by private corporations also has a way of making it to government.
407 ETR, the privately run electronic toll highway north of Toronto, scans licence plates so the owner can be billed. Police have accessed the data to track vehicles entering and exiting the highway, cross-referencing it and linking it to their investigations.
More widely used is hydro-electricity data. Special legislation in some provinces sees hydro data turned over to government to help identify homes with unusually high usage.
Drawing a lot of power is a marker for running a marijuana grow operation. More than one hothouse cucumber farmer, hot tub or swimming pool owner has been on the wrong end of that information.
Needless to say, that’s a lot of surveillance in a lot of sectors. The range of activities also speaks to why privacy advocates are often jack-of-all-trades (there aren’t a lot of them, so they need to learn a little about a lot) and why there are persistant worries around ‘surveillance creep’, or the gradual expansion of state surveillance capabilities. Sure, a new program may not be all that significant on its own but when combined with everything else authorities can derive previously-impossible-to-realize insights into Canadians’ private lives.
And, let me tell you from experience: getting access to the personal information that is stored about you by various agencies is often an act in futility. Government can learn about you, but it’s often impossible to learn what government has recorded about yourself.
Aaron was part of an army of citizens that believes democracy only works when the citizenry are informed, when we know about our rights—and our obligations. An army that believes we must make justice and knowledge available to all—not just the well born or those that have grabbed the reigns of power—so that we may govern ourselves more wisely.
When people try to restrict access to the law, or they try to collect tolls on the road to knowledge, or deny education to those without means, those people are the ones who should face the stern gaze of an outraged public prosecutor.