Thursday, December 15, 2005

Federal Court on biometric voice authentication: Turner v. Telus Communications Inc.

The Federal Court has recently released its decision in the application made by certain employees of Telus Communications, complaining about the use of voice recognition technology for some of its internal management systems. (For more info, see my post on the original complaint: The Canadian Privacy Law Blog: PIPEDA Case Summary #281: Organization uses biometrics for authentication purposes.)

A group of employees refused to consent to the use of the technology and were threatened by Telus with "progressive disclipline". The applicants (including the union) sought an order preventing the use of this system and for unspecified damages. Justice Gibson of the Federal Court dismissed the application.

The judge concluded:

  • the use of biometric voice authentication in these cirucmstances is reasonable;
  • the threat of progressive discipline is not withholding goods or services contrary to principle 4.3.3;
  • the categories of consent exceptions ("except where inappropriate") may not be a closed list set out in Section 7; and
  • an employer can implement progressive discipline for those who do not consent to collections, uses and disclosures of their information that are reasonable.

The judge also declined to order costs against the union or the individual applicants.

Below is a condensed version of the conclusion reached by Justice Gibson:

Turner v. Telus Communications Inc., 2005 FC 1601 (CanLII):

[52] On the facts of this matter, Telus sought to obtain voice prints from a substantial number of its employees and the vast majority of that number consented. Those who did not consent knew that Telus wished to obtain their consent. They continued to refuse to consent so that their consent could not be obtained in "...a timely way". They exercised their right to complain to the Commissioner. They received a report from the Commissioner which concluded that Telus' wish to obtain their consent was reasonable. The non-consenting employees exercised their right to come to this Court for a de novo review of the situation. Assuming that they will be unsuccessful in this Court, and they will be, it would not be in the interests of justice that a stalemate result.

[53] I am satisfied that this is one of the circumstances to which paragraph 7(1)(a) of PIPEDA is directed. While that paragraph will not enable Telus to proceed with full and complete implementation of e.Speak and to force employee enrollment, it will, I am satisfied, enable Telus to continue with the implementation of e.Speak at its current level and, if persons such as the Individual Applicants continue to withhold their consent, it will entitle Telus to proceed with "progressive discipline" in relation to all or any of them that is reasonable in all the circumstances.

[54] By contrast, I am satisfied that paragraph 7(1)(d) of PIPEDA is of no assistance to Telus in the current circumstances. While it is arguable that voice characteristics are "publicly available", that form of personal information is not specified by any regulations made under the authority of PIPEDA.

[55] If I am determined to be wrong in my analysis regarding the scope of paragraph 7(1)(a) of PIPEDA, there remains, I am satisfied, an alternative solution to the impasse that I perceive might flow from an absolute requirement to obtain consent from each and every individual affected. My analysis in that regard follows.

[56] It was not in dispute before the Court that three (3) of the Individual Applicants have never consented to take part in the Nuance Verifier enrollment process. While the fourth Individual Applicant did consent and did take part, he withdrew his consent as he was entitled to do under Principle 4.3.8.

[57] Counsel for the Individual Applicants urges that consent to disclosure of biometric personal information is a term or condition of employment and that, as such, given the collective agreement in force between Telus and TWU representing certain of its employees, including the Individual Applicants, even if the Individual Applicants had consented, that consent is of no force or effect since "...terms and conditions of employment must be negotiated with The Telecommunications Workers Union and that had not taken place in respect of the disclosures for which consent is sought in the context of this proceeding."

[58] Counsel for Telus urges that consent to the disclosure of the personal information here at issue is simply not a term or condition of employment and that therefore Telus' efforts to obtain consent directly from the Individual Applicants was entirely appropriate and TWU had no role to play regarding the consents.

[59] I accept the position urged on behalf of Telus in this regard. That being said, in circumstances where it is a matter of public knowledge that was clear to the Court, that the relationship between Telus and TWU on behalf of a significant number of Telus' employees was, at all relevant times, less than cordial, it was at least surprising and, perhaps more appropriately, astonishing, that Telus had apparently not engaged TWU in the process of attempting to achieve consents to the implementation of e.Speak.

[60] It was not in dispute before the Court that, while the three Individual Applicants had not consented to provide voice samples, and the fourth withdrew his consent, by far the vast majority of their colleagues at Telus in respect of whom Telus sought to implement e.Speak had consented and had provided voice samples for the purposes of Nuance Verifier. It was also not in dispute that one individual who had volunteered to provide a voice sample was incapable, for medical reasons, of fulfilling the appropriate requirements. In her case, special arrangements had been made to accommodate her situation. Finally, it was also not in dispute that, although Telus had "threatened", "progressive discipline" for those from whom it sought enrollment and who refused to consent to enrollment, no such discipline had been imposed and there was no evidence before the Court that such discipline would reach the level of dismissal, thus making the discipline imposed effectively reach to the level of a term or condition of employment.

[61] I am satisfied on the evidence before the Court that Telus was somewhat high handed in its efforts to achieve consent to enrollment and had been, since the commencement of the enrollment process, something less than forthcoming as to what it meant by "progressive discipline". That being said, I am satisfied that Telus was reasonably forthcoming in other respects in its consultations with its employees that it sought to enroll, that it was reasonably patient in that process and that, generally speaking, it neither bullied nor harassed its employees towards enrollment.

[62] The issue then reduces itself to the question: "What are the implications where Telus fails to achieve consent from a small minority of affected employees, such as the Individual Applicants, to enrollment in the e.Speak programme, where implementation of "progressive discipline" for failure to consent is not only implied but expressed, and where there is absolutely no evidence before the Court that Telus will escalate such "progressive discipline" to the point of termination, thus effectively making consent a term or condition of employment?

[63] I am satisfied that the foregoing question remains an issue for another day. Telus has, to a very large extent, implemented e.Speak. A very small minority, perhaps only the Individual Applicants, but perhaps also others, remain principled hold-outs. There is no basis on which to conclude that "progressive discipline" that might be implemented against hold-outs will reach the level of termination. To this point, I adopt the urgings of counsel for Telus that Telus has simply engaged, in what it considers to be the best interests of its business and, thus, arguably of its employees, including the Individual Applicants, in the exercise of its residual management rights. I cannot conclude that the obligation on the part of Telus to obtain consent to the implementation of the e.Speak system, in respect of the Individual Applicants, precludes Telus from implementing that system in respect of the vast majority of its employees to which it wishes to make the e.Speak system applicable.

[64] Counsel for the Individual Applicants cites Principle 4.3.3 against the conclusion I have reached in this regard. That principle, reproduced in the Schedule to these reasons, is reproduced here for ease of reference:

An organization shall not, as a condition of the supply of a product or service, require an individual to consent to the collection, use, or disclosure of information beyond that required to fulfil the explicitly specified, and legitimate purposes.

With great respect, I am not satisfied that Telus' efforts to achieve the consent of the Individual Applicants to participate in the e.Speak system is being sought as "...a condition of the supply of a product or service,...". In the result, while my conclusion in this regard does not affect the result herein, I am not satisfied that the Individual Applicants are entitled to rely on Principle 4.3.3 in respect of this matter.

[65] The foregoing being said, quite apart from my analysis regarding the interpretation of paragraph 7(1)(a), of PIPEDA, I nonetheless conclude that Telus has fulfilled its consent obligations under PIPEDA in respect of the implementation of e.Speak. In introducing e.Speak applicable only to those who consented to enrollment, Telus acted within its residual management rights. The impact of "progressive discipline" against the small minority who have withheld their consent, as they are entitled to do, is for another day and for another forum.

d) Additional issues raised on behalf of the Commissioner

[66] As earlier indicated in these reasons, counsel for the Commissioner raised issues including the appropriate weight to be given to the factors taken into consideration by the Commissioner in her Report leading to this proceeding, whether this Court should apply the legal analytical framework and factors considered by the Commissioner in balancing the interests of the parties as required by subsection 5(3) of PIPEDA, the role of TWU in the process of seeking consent from the Individual Applicants and the appropriate principles in assessing whether the Individual Applicants consented to the collection and use of their personal information.

[67] To some extent, these issues have been addressed, directly or indirectly, in the foregoing analysis. To the extent that they have not been so addressed, I am reluctant to respond to them because they indirectly invite the Court to answer questions that would only be appropriate if this matter were in the nature of judicial review. Where the foregoing issues have not been addressed, the Court's response is that it must be guided by jurisprudence from the Federal Court of Appeal and where no such guidance exists, by guidance provided by other decisions of this Court in an appropriate context and, further, where that guidance is also lacking, the Court must act in accordance with what it, itself, considers to be required by PIPEDA. Put another way, and more briefly, it is not for the Commissioner, however knowledgeable and informed she or he might be with respect to the issues here coming before the Court, to set the agenda of this Court where hearings such as this are in the nature of de novo proceedings.

[68] In the result, I decline to address the issues raised on behalf of the Commissioner, to the extent that they have not already been addressed in these reasons.


[69] These applications will be dismissed. As earlier indicated, orders will go striking out The Telecommunications Workers Union as a party Applicant in each proceeding."

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