Friday, September 10, 2004

Privacy Site of the Day: Privacy Impact Assessment Guidelines

The Treasury Board Secretariat, the principal policy making body for the Canadian federal government, has made available a tremendous resource for the conduct of privacy impact assessments (PIAs). The federal government's PIA policy and guidelines are on the Treasury Board's site, and they provide an excellent and systematic way of scrutinizing new or expanded projects to ensure that privacy principles and privacy legislation are considered at every step. This is much more efficient than discovering at the conclusion of the project that it has to be redisigned to mitigate privacy risks.

An additional benefit of the PIA guidelines is that they can be implemented, by and large, by the project team with review and oversight by a privacy lawyer or the organization's privacy officer.

Also on the subject of PIAs, I'd recommend reading a speech by Stuart Bloomfield, of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. Stuart spoke about PIAs to the 2nd annual forum on managing government information in March 2004.

By asking the right questions — i.e., whether the information requested is truly necessary, whether the use is consistent with the stated purpose, whether retention is rationally connected to its use, etc, the PIA serves to give effect to the fair information practice principles.

In sum, PIAs perform the following roles:

  1. They act as an early warning and planning tool;
  2. They forecast and/or confirm the impacts of a government proposal on the privacy of individuals and groups;
  3. They provide a mechanism to assess a proposal's compliance with privacy protection legislation and principles; and
  4. They provide a framework for the development and implementation of actions and strategies required to avoid or overcome the negative impacts of the proposal on privacy.

In conducting a PIA and acting upon the advice advanced therein, government departments can:

  1. Avoid adverse publicity, the loss of credibility and public confidence and the legal costs, remedies and sanctions that could result from negative impacts; and
  2. Increase Canadians' privacy awareness and confidence with the government's handling of their personal information by informing them of the details of the proposal.

The potential costs to departments by not conducting a PIA where one is required should not be underestimated. One need only recall the highly publicized debacle over HRDC's Longitudinal Labour Force File (LLF) whose subsequent dismantlement following public complaints against the database cost the department millions of dollars. Arguably had a PIA been done on the LLF prior to implementation, HRDC could have avoided the adverse publicity and financial losses that it suffered as a result of this incident.

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