Friday, January 07, 2005

Fallout from naming/not naming Canadian victims

In the last few days, the Toronto Star decided to release an unofficial list of missing and dead Canadians in South Asia after Canadian authorities suggested that their hands were tied by the Privacy Act. The Privacy Commissioner and others corrected them, pointing out the public interest exception in s. 8 of the Act. All of this has led to two interesting letters to the editor in the Toronto Star: - Release official list to world: Circulate listing via e-mail to every hotel, resort and set of bungalows — especially in Thailand:

"Search for the dead

Jan. 6.

After days of citing the Privacy Act as a barrier to disclosing names of the missing and dead Canadians in southern Asia, the federal government has conceded it made a discretionary decision not to release the information. And yet, in practical terms, releasing the names may very well help in ascertaining the fate of Canadians missing in Asia.

Prime Minister Paul Martin and a series of Foreign Affairs officials invoked Canada's Privacy Act as a reason for not releasing the names of the Canadians missing and feared dead in the Boxing Day tsunami. However, Jennifer Stoddart, Canada's privacy watchdog, is concerned that federal officials are "misquoting" the Privacy Act to justify withholding the names of the estimated 150 Canadians missing and feared dead in the tsunami. "The Privacy Act does allow exceptional release of names where there's a public interest that outweighs an invasion of privacy," she says.

With all due respect to anyone upset, if publishing an unofficial list, in the Star, "derived from many sources," has now confirmed that 50 on that list are in fact safe — all the better! It's now the rest — and others — that we should all be focused upon. If publishing the official listing helps to find only one — even better. Rather than waving an index finger at the Star for its efforts, get the official listing out — it is not an infringement on privacy rights. Circulate that listing via e-mail to every hotel, resort and set of bungalows — particularly in Thailand. And get them to start double-checking their guest registries. These are developing countries and we must not assume that everything functions like it does in the developed world, particularly during a crisis.

Prime Minister Martin, please give us the official listing so that those of us who can, are able to search even from afar. No one will think badly of you.

Keith Dériger, Ottawa

Canadians in Thailand

Jan. 5.

I am certain that Star editors have the best of intentions in publishing a list of known dead and/or missing people from this recent tragedy. But it is an unfair sleight of hand to circumnavigate privacy laws. The privacy laws exist for just that reason, to preserve privacy — pure and simple — no questions to be asked.

The Star notes the list was complied by reference to information provided to the government "from reports by worried friends and relatives." Is it not just possible this information was provided to the government by some people who did not expect to see it on page A3 of Canada's largest newspaper? In short, some of these friends and relatives may have wished for privacy or had a reasonable expectation of privacy. Did the Star canvass the friends and relatives to see who wanted to see their enquiries end up on page A3 ? Would all missing wish to have their names published? How generous of the Star to speak for all these people.

In many cases newspapers publish information that may indicate secret corporate, government or individual malfeasance — possibly stopping an unjust practice. This is not the case here. This is not a public service. Why do readers have to know this information?

David S. Faul, Ajax"

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