Vast database details every Canadian's life

Federal watchdog says some files hold 2,000 bits of information

Ian MacLeod
The Ottawa Citizen, Wednesday May 17, 2000

The federal government has quietly created a massive computer database with intimate details about millions of Canadians, including income, employment, education and family status, federal Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips revealed yesterday.

"This is an enormous database with enormous amounts of information about each one of us," the nation's chief privacy watchdog said following the release of his annual report to Parliament on the state of personal privacy in Canada.

"Every one of us is covered in this file in one way or another. They have a complete record of you if you've had any contact anywhere with any (of a number of government departments and programs) ... which tells them how your life is progressing."

The Longitudinal Labour Force File, managed by Human Resources Development Canada, contains detailed data on 33.7 million living and dead Canadians. Some individual files contain as many as 2,000 bits and pieces of vital personal information, Mr. Phillips said.

The labour file was established about 15 years ago by Employment and Immigration Canada and is used to research and evaluate the effectiveness of the federal employment insurance program.

The information is gleaned from other government data banks and includes details from tax returns, child tax benefit files, provincial and municipal welfare files, federal jobs, job training and employment programs and services, employment insurance files and the social insurance master file.

Mr. Phillips said there are proposals to expand the file 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.

"Successive privacy commissioners have assured Canadians that there was no single federal government file, or profile about them," said Mr. Phillips. "We were wrong -- or not right enough for comfort.

"I don't question that they had, and they have, good reasons for doing this and that it is useful information in terms of improving the quality of their programs. I am not suggesting either that they've done anything unlawful here. They are complying with the strict letter of the law as we understand it.

"But there are serious problems here."

Although an HRDC Web site contains a brief description about the labour file, Mr. Phillips said much more has to be done to let Canadians know about the extent of the government's surveillance of its citizens. "Transparency and knowledge about what the government is doing is important."

A senior HRDC official yesterday defended the file and said the department has been trying to address Mr. Phillips' concerns, including agreeing to purge individual data from the file after 25 years.

"We have taken his concerns seriously," said Bob Wilson, HRDC's director-general of evaluation and data development. "We're not unmindful of the privacy concerns surrounding the database.

"On the other hand, it's really important to Canadians that we do policy research and evaluation so that we can get programs that meet their needs. So, as in all of these thorny public policy issues, there's a saw-off about where do you draw the line in respect of that."

He said specific information in the database is electronically masked to hide an individual's identity and that only a handful of HRDC officials have access to the technological hardware needed to unmask the data. He acknowledged the masked data is sometimes given to private firms for research and analysis.

"We're concerned about maintaining the privacy of individuals and we've done a large number of things to protect that," said Mr. Wilson. "We, perhaps not wisely, but nevertheless, have relied on the fact that we've been doing this for 15 years and never had a problem with it, never had even a hint of a (security) breach."

Mr. Phillips said he has no reason to believe current government officials are abusing the information contained in the file, though he questions what future officials might do and whether any officials really need all of the information the file contains.

In effect, he said, the government is compiling a de facto profile of virtually every citizen in Canada.

"My problem here is ... the Privacy Act at the moment is insufficient to prevent these kinds of informational collections," he said. "The Canadian public believes, for example, that when they send their tax information, it doesn't go out of the tax department. Well, in fact, it does, many times and to many places. There's something like 200 informational exchange agreements between Revenue Canada and various other agencies, plus other governments."

In the two years since the Office of the Privacy Commissioner found out about the labour file, Mr. Phillips said he has tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade HRDC officials to enact legislation to control the collection, handling and access to the information.

"I said years ago, the fear is not Big Brother, it's thousands of little brothers, all of whom have" increasing technological ability to monitor the personal lives of Canadians.

"But there is a Big Brother factor as well, and I think the Longitudinal Labour Force File is an example of the kind of thing that modern technology makes possible. We should know about it. We should know they're doing it and they should have to do it under very tightly written legal restraints about the usage of that information."

But Mr. Wilson said HRDC officials believe current laws and regulations offer many of the protections Mr. Phillips wants.

"We really need to sit down with him to find out exactly what he would like us to do by way of legislative framework," he said.

Longitudinal Labour Force File

Description: The bank contains all of the following information: Social Insurance Number, sex, date of birth, name and initials of the person. It may contain information on income, periods of employment and unemployment, eligibility of employment insurance and or social assistance, family situation, education, National Training Program courses taken and other employment services received.

Consistent Usee: ...It may be provided to private sector firms for planning, statistics, research and situations.

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen