Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Privacy commissioner urged to probe Tory eavesdropping

This may be a legitimate complaint, but a futile one under the Privacy Act: Canada Privacy commissioner urged to probe Tory eavesdropping

Dec 03, 2008 03:18 PM

OTTAWA — A public interest researcher has filed a formal complaint with Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, charging top prime ministerial aides, a parliamentary secretary and an MP with "serious breaches" of the privacy laws.

Ken Rubin is asking Stoddart to investigate the eavesdropping, recording and distribution of a New Democratic conference call by a Conservative MP last weekend about a proposed alternative coalition government.

The office of Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed that the MP was "invited" to participate by email, but the NDP suggested Conservative MP John Duncan mistakenly received an email intended for their MP Linda Duncan, and should not have participated in the call, let alone tape it.

The party has asked the RCMP to investigate whether an offence under the Criminal Code occurred.

Rubin contends that even if criminal law wasn't broken, there were serious breaches of privacy by a government that has claimed it would fight identity theft with tougher criminal code provisions.

In a letter sent to Stoddart today, Rubin writes that provisions in privacy legislation "mean you cannot collect or share personal information or conversations of others that you are not a legitimate party to."

He alleges several breaches, all related to the "wrongful" and wide distribution to the media of the contents of the conference call "by a government entity (who receives significant taxpayers' monies)."

He suggests it is a case of potential "identity theft" when a person (in this case one elected MP) "allegedly assumes the identity of another elected MP with the same last name, whether there was a mix up in the communications sent or not."

Rubin described himself as "both a privacy and access to information advocate with no partisan axe to grind."

He urged an investigation by Stoddart, the Ethics Commissioner, and a Parliamentary committee, reminding Stoddart of her advocacy for stronger protections against identity theft.

"No public official should be seen to be or partake in any such activity."

"These privacy breaches are all the more onimous when they are carried out by the central state and with the Prime Minister's Office in the lead. This is the very institution whose elected head and parliamentary secretary (Pierre Poilievre, who commented on the call) are supposed to be leaders in upholding Canadians' privacy protections."

Rubin acknowledged the PMO is not "directly covered under either privacy or access legislation."

But he reminded Stoddart that Ontario ministers have had to resign in the past when they misused personal data derived from government institutions.

"Someone in this case needs to be held accountable and to offer Parliament and the appropriate parliamentary committee an explanation."

"It is disturbing too to see that on one hand, the government denies public access to much of its key operations, including the PMO. But it then feels it can gain intelligence on the operations of others by using deceptive means."

Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, said "no comment" in response to a request from the Star.

Meantime, Rubin's complaint my reach a dead end.

Valerie Lawton, a spokesperson for Stddart, said in an emailed: "The Privacy Act does not cover political parties or members of Parliament."

The privacy commissioner also does not have jurisdiction over either political parties or MPs.

1 comment:

Michael Dundas said...

This is an interesting claim. I had heard they were eavesdropping on the news and that perked my interest. I was not aware they had received an email invitation albeit in error. It makes me wonder about two things.

The first is when law firms, insurance companies and other businesses append statements such as the following on outgoing emails:

"This transmission is intended only for each addressee. It may contain confidential, privileged, proprietary and commercially sensitive information ("Information"). Any unauthorized disclosure, copying, or retransmission of this message or any Information is strictly prohibited. If you have received this transmission or any information in error, please so confirm by return email."

My understanding is that this has no weight and a court has never reached a verdit to date. If the email had something like this attached, I would love to see it brought to court and a decision on the validity of it made.

My second comment is in regards that the PMO office is not covered by the privacy act. I feel there is a fundamental problem with democracy and our country when individuals, or groups can claim that they are not bound by laws like everyone else. Effectively, they are stating they are above the typical citizen, and above the law. In my opinion that is a fundamental flaw that eventually we will all 'pay for'.