Canada's Big Brother: HRDC and
The Longitudinal Labour Force File

    "Privacy is the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others." —Professor Alan Westin, 1967

    "Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart said she saw nothing wrong with collecting vast amounts of information on Canadians in centralized databanks, noting that it has been done since 1985."

    "Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, yesterday said her officials will review outdated federal privacy legislation after a respected watchdog revealed that the government has created a computer database that puts the privacy of millions of Canadians at risk."

    "Ms. Stewart said the information in the computer database is safe because it is "encrypted," but then told the Commons that six unidentified HRDC employees have access to unencrypted information in the database."

    "Privacy is related entirely to the degree to which we respect each other as unique individuals, each with our own sets of values which we are entitled to make known or not as we see fit. To truly respect your neighbour, you must grant that person a private life. Respecting one another's privacy means the difference between a life of liberty, autonomy and dignity, and a hollow and intimidating existence under a cloud of constant oppressive surveillance." —Bruce Phillips, Privacy Commissioner of Canada, 1999

    Canada's federal Privacy Commissioner, Bruce Phillips, has revealed a massive computerized database that contains volumes of personal data on 33.7 million Canadian's living and dead. The database was started fifteen years ago by the Office of Employment and Immigration and is used to research and evaluate the effectiveness of the federal employment insurance program. The database contains information regarding tax returns, child tax benefits, provincial and municipal welfare files, federal jobs, job training and other information. There are proposals to expand the database to include additional data on social assistance recipients from provinces and territories, the Canada Student Loan Program, the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security Program.

So what? I have nothing to hide.

    "Gathering some data for research is not necessarily a privacy intrusion. Many government databases may be used for research, and the Privacy Act specifically allows research disclosures. What, then, is the problem with the Longitudinal Labour Force File?

    There are several. First, its comprehensiveness; this is an extraordinarily detailed database, which could contain as many as 2000 elements on an individual including education, marital/family status, language, citizenship and landed immigrant status, ethnic origin, mobility, disabilities, income tax data, employment histories, labour market activities, use of social assistance and Employment Insurance. Continually centralizing and integrating so much personal data on almost every person in Canada poses significant risks to our privacy.

    Second, the database is relatively invisible. HRDC is not trying to hide its existence. In fact, it describes the database in Info Source and on its Web site. Unfortunately, neither are widely read, nor easily understood, and the description of the database contains few details. Canadians don't know how much information is being collected about them or the extent to which it is being integrated and shared with others. For example, how many taxpayers know their financial information is in an HRDC profile? HRDC can provide the data to private sector research firms under contract for planning, statistics, research and evaluation. It can give the data to non-government organizations (such as academic researchers and universities) to carry out studies on HRDC's behalf under a formal agreement or contractual arrangement. Some of the information may also be used by government organizations (e.g. Statistics Canada, provincial and territorial governments) to conduct research into the labour force, the labour market and other related fields.

    Third, its permanence; this database is never purged. The database captures information from the cradle to the grave and beyond. Research databases should have defined parameters that include a limited storage time. Without an end, the temptation is to subject everyone to unrelenting information surveillance. This database needs limits.

    Fourth, there is no legal protective framework. The government's pre-eminent statistical agency, Statistics Canada, operates under very strict legislation--complete with penalties--to protect the personal data it gathers for research and statistics. It cannot share, sell, or use this information for operational purposes. No such walls protect the HRDC research databases.

    Compiling such comprehensive longitudinal records by record linkage or matching is a hazard to informational privacy because of the temptation for government to use the information for data mining and individual profiling. A so-called "research database" may soon lend itself to other purposes, raising fears that data could be used to make decisions or predictions about individuals, or could be retrieved in unforeseen ways--by disabilities or ethnic origin, for example--to the detriment of individual rights. This fear is not unfounded; about two years ago HRDC launched a pilot project--the Service Outcome Measurement System--to use research data for program administration." —Bruce Phillips, Canada's Privacy Commissioner, in his 1999-2000 Annual Report. Read it.

Want to see your file?

    Here's 3 different ways you can do it:

    1. Fill out a Personal Information Request Form, available at local Human Resources Development Canada offices. You can call 1-800-935-5555 to find the HRDC office nearest you.
    2. Write a letter, including your name and Social Insurance Number, and mail to: Access to Information and Privacy Co-ordinator, Human Resources Development Canada, Place du Portage, Phase IV, Level 1, 140 Promenade du Portage, Hull, Que. K1A 0J9. Is there anything stopping someone from requesting information about somebody else? Looks like all you would need is their Social Insurance Number... Wow, is there an even greater threat to privacy lurking within this already massive one?
    3. Fill out the Online Personal Information Request Form ( One caveat, this method requires you to send them $5. Leave it to our government to charge money for a more cost-effective automated service. Good-grief.

    We strongly encourage *everyone* to file this request. You will find out personally just how much information about you has been collated by the Canadian government and how it might impinge on your privacy. And it will send a message to our government regarding the public's privacy concerns.

Canada's Privacy Invasion In the News...