Trudeau outlines Canadian data privacy reforms

By on 26/12/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Innovation, science and industry minister Navdeep Bains has been tasked with enabling privacy law reform. (Image courtesy: Mike Gifford/flickr).

Canada’s privacy commissioner is to be given enhanced powers to establish a new set of online regulations, protecting citizens’ privacy and their rights over the data collected on them by both private and public bodies.

In a mandate letter from Canada’s newly re-elected prime minister Justin Trudeau to minister of innovation, science and industry Navdeep Bains, Trudeau sets out 25 priorities covering issues such as data privacy, the use of data tools and the management of Statistics Canada. The news follows the publication of an official report which called for an overhaul of the country’s privacy laws, in light of a number of data privacy investigations and concerns about government agency Statistics Canada’s use of data.

In the letter, Trudeau writes that Bains should work with the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and the Minister of Canadian Heritage to advance Canada’s Digital Charter, and to give the privacy commissioner powers to establish the new set of online rights.

The prime minister said these rights should include the ability to withdraw, remove and erase basic personal data from a platform; the knowledge of how personal data is being used, including with a national advertising registry, and the ability to withdraw consent for the sharing or sale of data; the ability to review and challenge the amount of personal data that a company or government has collected; and the ability to be informed when personal data is compromised, with appropriate compensation.

The new set of rights would also cover data portability; proactive data security requirements; and the ability to be free from online discrimination including bias and harassment, he said.

Time to act

In a blog post by Canadian law firm Lawson Lundell, three of its lawyers – Ryan Berger, Jocelyn McAdam and Cory Sully – write that while some of the rights outlined in the letter exist in Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and “arguably exist to some degree in existing privacy laws in Canada”, some – such as the right to know how personal data is being used – are “not well enforced”.

The letter “signals changes that we can anticipate to Canada’s privacy laws and how they will be enforced. Overall, individual rights will be strengthened and organisations will have more significant compliance obligations,” they write.  

Another priority set out in the letter is to “create new regulations for large digital companies to better protect people’s personal data and encourage greater competition in the digital marketplace”. A new post of data commissioner is to be established to oversee the regulations.

The letter sets out the need to “crack down on financial crime in real estate while respecting Canadians’ privacy rights”. And it asks that Bains, with the support of the Minister of Digital Government, “continue work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government”.

Better protecting Canadians

In his annual report, Privacy Law Reform, published earlier this month, privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien urged parliamentarians to adopt rights-based privacy laws to better protect Canadians in the face of data-driven technologies and the risks they pose to privacy.

“For good and bad, data-driven technologies are a disruptive force,” he said. “They open the door for innovation and economic growth, but they have been shown to be harmful to rights, including privacy, equality and democracy.”

He said the starting point for legislative reform is to give new privacy laws a rights-based foundation, and that the central purpose of the law should be to protect privacy as a human right.

He proposed enforcing mechanisms to offer quick and effective remedies for people whose privacy rights have been violated; introducing inspections to ensure organisations are demonstrably accountable to the regulator for their privacy practices; and empowering his office to impose penalties on organisations for non-compliance with the law.  

“A rights-based law would not be an impediment to innovation; to the contrary, good privacy laws are key to promoting trust in both government and commercial activities,” Therrien said. “Without that trust, innovation, growth and social acceptance of government programmes can be severely affected.

“Other countries, not only in Europe but also in Asia, South America and Africa, have recently modernised their privacy laws and it is time that Canada move in the same direction.”

Over the line

The report also drew on the investigation into Statistics Canada over programmes which involved the collection of credit histories and the proposed mass collection of financial transaction information from banks without people’s knowledge or consent, after media stories about the two initiatives prompted public outrage.

The commissioner found that Statistics Canada had not violated current laws, but said the episode “did raise significant privacy concerns about the design of the programmes” and highlighted the inadequacy of existing legislation.

“Canadians were deeply troubled by these initiatives,” Therrien said. “This concern was clearly justified given the scale of the proposed collection, the highly sensitive nature of the information and the fact that the information in question would paint an intrusively detailed portrait of a person’s lifestyle, consumer choices and private interests.”

The statistics agency agreed to follow the commissioner’s recommendations not to implement the projects as originally designed, and to work with his office to redesign the initiatives.

“We welcome Statistics Canada’s commitment to making changes that will integrate better privacy protections into future statistical initiatives. This will help to build public trust,” Therrien said.

“We also hope that this experience will encourage other federal departments to fully consider privacy issues as they work to align their activities with the federal government’s strategy to make more strategic use of the data they collect.”

Read Global Government Forum‘s interview with Statistics Canada’s chief statistician Anil Arora, published earlier this year.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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