Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Who do our privacy laws protect?

I was intereviewed by a New Brunswick journalist last week who was writing an article on how privacy laws can be used in a knee-jerk way to limit access to government information. The article, I expect, is a reaction to a number of stories out of NB where reporters were given the excuse of privacy laws to limit their access to information about potential high-risk offenders, the investigation of a motor vehicle accident that claimed a number of lives and public sector salaries.

Here is the bit that I contributed: - Who do our privacy laws protect?

Governments must protect citizens' public information [note: I'm sure I said "private information"] while still being accountable and transparent to the public, said David Fraser, a privacy lawyer with the Atlantic Canadian law firm McInnes-Cooper.

For example, the expenses for a cabinet minister's trip to Europe would likely be made public. However, a doctor's billing records, which would essentially reveal their salary, are only made available in some provinces, he said.

And although some form of privacy legislation has existed federally for quite some time, that doesn't mean the laws regulate every activity on the internet.

"It regulates commercial activities. So it says what information your bank can ask about you and what it can do with it, or your local video store," said Fraser. "But if an individual takes a picture of another person on their camera phone in embarrassing circumstances and then they post it on the Internet that's a personal use, not a commercial use, so that's not caught by that law." There are some circumstances where personal information can be released. For example, if an individual gives consent.

As well, personal information can be disclosed if it's deemed to be for the greater good of the public.

"I think people, just as a knee-jerk reaction, they say no - it's personal information," said Fraser.

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