Ottawa considers giving privacy watchdog more power to protect Canadians’ rights

Ottawa considers giving privacy watchdog more power to protect Canadians’ rights

OTTAWA—The federal government says Canada’s privacy watchdog should finally get real teeth.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada should have limited order-making power to stop private companies from violating Canadians’ privacy rights, and the ability to levy more substantial fines against companies failing to comply with the law.

That’s according to a new policy paper released Tuesday by the Innovation, Science and Economic Development department on how to modernize Canada’s private sector privacy laws (PIPEDA).

“The current state of affairs cannot continue,” the document reads, citing a “lack of consequences” for “egregious” privacy violations.

“There is a growing view that the ombudsman model and enforcement of PIPEDA, which relies largely on recommendations … is outdated and does not incentivize compliance.”

While the government finds the “current state of affairs” intolerable, it’s likely to continue for some time. The policy paper is just that — suggestions that are meant to inform future laws and regulations.

It doesn’t commit Ottawa to immediate action, meaning it will be up to the next parliament to take up the cause.

“(The Liberals) have ignored numerous opportunities to bring these reasonable steps forward. So is it going to happen? Not in the life of this parliament,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus in an interview Tuesday, calling it a strong policy paper “for 2015.”

“I think that’s highly problematic … The words are great, but action needs to be there and I haven’t seen that yet.”

Angus noted that Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien has been forced to take Facebook to court to try and enforce Canadian privacy laws.

Therrien, along with the privacy commissioner of British Columbia, released a long-awaited report into Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal last month. The report found that Facebook failed to obtain “meaningful consent” from the users who had their personal information unknowingly collected, had insufficient safeguards to protect user privacy, and failed to be accountable for information under its control.

The commissioners also said Facebook has “outright rejected” recommendations to comply with Canadian law to the watchdogs’ satisfaction — a situation the Federal Court will now be expected to weigh in on.

“In our view, therefore, the risk is high that Canadians’ personal information will be disclosed to apps and used in ways the users may not know of or expect,” their report warned.

The policy paper was released as part of the Liberals’ push for a new “digital charter” to detail their expectations for how internet and tech giants collect, use and disclose Canadians’ personal data.

The 10-point charter suggests Canadians should have control over “what data they’re sharing, who is using their personal data and for what purposes.” It also promised “strong enforcement and real accountability” for tech and internet giants who violate Canadian law.

Currently, the maximum a company can be fined for breaking private sector privacy laws is $100,000 per offence. Business Insider calculated that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made $160,000 per minute at his net worth’s peak September 2018.

The policy paper recommends “substantially” increasing the range of fines the privacy commissioner can levy against a company, and be able to consider mitigating or aggravating factors to factor into the total dollar amount.

Therrien was not consulted on the government’s new policy paper, according to spokesperson Tobi Cohen. But Cohen said the office welcomes the government’s acknowledgement that reform is needed, as it “has been clear for many years that PIPEDA requires extensive reform.”

“The commissioner called for the law to be updated to recognize that privacy is a fundamental right and a necessary precondition for the exercise of other fundamental rights, including freedom, equality and democracy,” Cohen wrote in a statement.

“As we saw in the Facebook-Cambridge (Analytica) scandal, a lack of respect for privacy rights can lead to very real harms, such as attempts ot influence voters in an election.”

Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier

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