Everyone has something to hide: Liveblogging the Privacy Commissioner at the Ethics committee


Thanks to the miracle of liveblogging technology, you can pinpoint the exact second when the penny dropped for ITQ on what was actually going on during yesterday’s Ethics meeting:

5:15:54 PM
OMG, YOU GUYS – I AM AN IDIOT. I assumed – and yes, I don’t need to hear the joke – that the [Carole] Freeman motion had something to do with Access to Information, because that’s what she moved last time the committee met, but it doesn’t — not at all. She wants the committee to pick up where it left off with Camp In and Out last summer, and she has the support of the Liberals and maybe the NDP, which is why the government members are dragging this meeting out to the bitter end — so she can’t table the motion until the next meeting.

Read on for the full report.

You have to wonder what kind of cumulative cognitive dissonance these committee members are at risk of contracting, what with having a mandate that covers both Access to Information and privacy laws. Anyway, this afternoon, they’ll hear from Canada’s secret-keeper supreme, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, before dealing with a motion from the Bloc Quebecois’ Carole Freeman

3:10:03 PM
Huh. Turns out I’m not going to spend this afternoon in temporary West Blockian exile — the Ethics committee has managed to snag one of the two “big rooms”, as they’re informally known, that open onto the Hall of Honour in the heart of Centre Block. Definitely much more civilized — and televised, too; at least, on ParlVu — so any readers with broadband and a soundproof office can tune in via the Web to watch the magic unfold live, in virtual person.

(Those not so fortune can still make do with ITQ’s version of events, of course.)

3:19:20 PM
Lisa Madelon Campbell and Chantal Bernier. Those are the two co-witnesses who will be flanking the Privacy Commish. Oh, and it’s not just ITQ who is surprised – in the best possible way – to be back in the Reading Room; one of the spectators just remarked that she didn’t know how they’d wound up in one of the “good rooms”

3:26:32 PM
Hey, remember those potted plants from the presidential press conference? They’re still here, albeit banished to a table at the back of the room. (Feel free to insert as many jokes as you’d like about Conservative MPs and/or lazy journalists here.)

3:32:32 PM
And – we’re on! Wait, apparently, Pierre Poilievre is ahead of ITQ on the whole televising-the-committee bandwagon, and asks the chair if it would be possible to turn on the cameras already present in the room, which apparently *isn’t* automatic, which is news to ITQ. Anyway, apparently, it isn’t quite as simple as just flicking a switch, so the chair suggests that the meeting get started now, and they’ll work on the magic picture box stuff in the meantime.

3:34:43 PM
And with that, Jennifer Stoddart begins her opening statement with a brief overview of her office, and – hey, there’s Russ Hiebert! I was worried that the government side was going to be made up entirely of newbies and Pierre Poilievre. Anyway, Stoddart stresses that the threats to Canadian privacy are real, and grave.

3:37:59 PM
Identity theft! Nanotechnology! Deep packet techniques! Aghhh! That’s sort of the upshot of the first part of her presentation, but she swiftly segues to the good news, such as it is – all the work that her office has done, and continues to do with international law enforcement and privacy watchdog agencies, as well as the efforts it makes at home, but the current Privacy Act is in desperate need of reform. “The legislation needs a complete overhaul,” apparently. (It’s probably worth noting that the committee actually began a study on privacy reform last year, before — events transpired that temporarily shifted its focus from privacy to ethics.)

3:41:55 PM
That’s it for the statement – now, onto questions!

3:43:11 PM
Actually, I spoke too soon – first, Szabo reminds Stoddart that the committee has, in fact, previously been seized with the issue, and asks if she has any suggestions to make on potential witnesses that they could invite before putting together a draft report, and also asks her to give the idea of increasing her human resources a whirl around the brain.

3:44:57 PM
Okay, *now* we’re onto questions, and Borys W. kicks things off with a pointed one about the RCMP, which seems to be subject to most of the complaints that her office handles, and he wonders what percentage of those are found to be valid. She says that most are *not*, but Borys clearly has some sort of particular example in mind; he presses her on complaints involving the release of personal information that causes embarrassment, and she declines to address the specifics.

Aha, here we go: Does she recall any case when a briefing note related to an investigation of alleged criminal behaviour by a Member of Parliament was released? Of course – the Casey Calumny. *That’s* what he was thinking of. If I’d not been so Monday-minded, I would have totally seen that coming. Anyway, Stoddart notes that she’s not done an investigation into briefing notes, specifically.

3:49:28 PM
Borys, still hammering away at the RCMP – gosh, it’s like the good old pension-probing days at Public Account – wonders about the agency’s collection of exempt databases, such as Project Shock, and Stoddart reminds him that at least one of those databases was shut down after her office released the results of its audit.

3:51:39 PM
Onto Carole Freeman, who wants to hear more about these sinister-sounding emerging technologies, and how the law could be modernized to address priority areas.

Bernier fields the question, and goes over much of the same ground trodden by the commissioner during her opening statement.

3:54:40 PM
Okay, so apparently, Carole Freeman recently caught a scary investigative report on the news – you know, one of those menacing-voiceover-heavy productions with lots of footage of hackers frolicking merrily through personal data with the click of a mouse. The commissioner points to the even more terrifying development of what can only be called xray specsnology – holographic scans at airport security checkpoints – before moving onto a contest that her office recently ran that challenged youthful privacy buffs to submit videos. Freeman seems a bit baffled by the link, and asks again what the office is doing to protect all of us against cybersomething-or-other, and Stoddart does her best to mollify.

4:00:32 PM
Bill Siksay wonders about security at the upcoming Olympics, which prompts Stoddart to once again hand the mic over to Bernier, who – by a serendipitous stroke of something – was, up until recently, an ADM at Public Safety, and hence deeply familiar with the security issues, and is now charged with ensuring that privacy isn’t sacrificed in the name of public safety. Siksay is pleasant, but unswayable – he doesn’t want generalities, he wants specifics, and Bernier – who has the cutest accent when she speaks English; it’s almost German, somehow – explains that there will be measures to make sure that surveillance cameras, for instance, only capture images of visitors who have actually trespassed. She also assures him that the RCMP won’t even keep the equipment – it will be leased; a service contract, and after the Olympics, it goes back to the owner.

4:05:48 PM
You know, Bill Siksay keeps referring to the “dissembling” of security equipment, but I’m pretty sure he actually means “disassembling”, not that there would be anything particularly out of place about dissemblage surfacing at a House committee.

Interesting: asked whether any such measures — cameras, etc — were installed in preparation for last week’s O-Day spectacular, the witnesses look at each other blankly and admit that they had no idea.

4:07:50 PM
Over to the government side, and Kelly Block, who wonders whether “average Canadians” would be satisfied with how their privacy is being protected if they knew what Stoddart knows.

4:10:06 PM
The answer to the above, it transpires, is “probably not”; Stoddart points to our glaring lack of anti-spam legislation, as well as the Facebook menace – one of her ongoing investigations, she reminds the committee – as well as more general parental concerns. Block then somewhat inexplicably asks for the highlights of the conferences Stoddart has attended over the last year or so. Couldn’t she just check the website?

4:13:25 PM
Block continues with her benign, if painfully boring line of inquiry, asking Stoddart what she has learned during her meetings and conferences abroad, which – I mean, it’s an entirely on-topic, adequate question; it’s just the kind that MPs usually ask when they don’t have any particular interest in or concern over the issue, and are just filling their party’s allotted time.

4:16:48 PM
Paul Szabo takes over after Block’s clock runs out, and wonders about the recent revelation of the privacy concerns inherent in the changes to the Elections Act that resulted in dates of birth of electors being released to parties. He wonders if Stoddart’s office brought that up during committee, and the commissioner explains that both she and her Ontario counterpart did, at length. That was some impressive witness-listening y’all did on those committees, guys.

4:19:28 PM
Back to Borys and the RCMP!

Ooh, a fascinating tangent – this Project Shock database, which was, it transpires, eventually declared non-exempt but was originally created to deal with post-September 11th concerns – would Maher Arar, for example, have been included in this list? And would that information have been shared with “foreign governments”? Again, Stoddart doesn’t want to give a definitive answer on a specific individual, but suggests that any such sharing would have te done within the confines of Canadian law.

4:23:37 PM
Borys moves onto biometrics – iris-scanning, fingerprints, all that stuff – which, according to Stoddart, hasn’t been the subject of too many complaints thus far, although it’s early yet, as Borys points out.

4:24:46 PM

Russ Hiebert is up for the government, and he wants to know how many investigations are currently underway; Stoddart initially tells the committee that there are roughly 1200 files, but Szabo jumps in to clarify whether these are actual investigations, or just folders sitting on someone’s desk somewhere. Stoddart promises to break it down transparently, and begins by reminding them that staffing issues were a concern when she last appeared before the committee – now, however, her office is “slightly over quota” with 161 employees, compared to just over 120 in May.

Finally, she comes back around to the number of active investigations, which she says currently stands at 547 under PIPEDA, and just over 600 under the Privacy Act. Hiebert, however, wants to know how many of these complaints are made by prisoners and wonders if this is still an “ongoing problem”. Wait, prisoners shouldn’t be able to file complaints under the Privacy Act? That doesn’t seem right.

Stoddart acknowledges that there is a definite phenomenon as far as the incarcerated population – Incarcerated-Canadians, let’s call them – but doesn’t seem to be willing to blame them entirely for the backlog, which is where I suspect Hiebert is slowly but inexorably heading. “Over half of these are backlogged?” He wonders. How is that possible, considering she has more staff and a lower turnover rate. Stoddart compares the backlog to icebergs, which tend to, you know, grow.

After Stoddart finishes, Szabo pipes up to back up her contention that an office can’t usually recover from the effects of a historically high turnover rate overnight.

4:35:35 PM
Back to the Bloc Quebecois, and Eve Marie Thi Lac, who wants to get back to the protection of data, particularly by government departments; she wonders if the practices are consistent between departments. Stoddart reminds her that this was discussed at length in the report she put out last week, in cooperation with the Auditor General, and noted that said report recommended that Treasury Board take a firmer, tougher position on universal standards. Good luck with that, guys. It took ITQ a few years to figure out that Treasury Board is all about establishing and maintaining government-wide guidelines and the standards, but not so much – read: not at all – involved in *enforcing* those standards once they’ve been set.

4:41:05 PM
Pierre Poilievre is up now, and I think I just now figured out why he’s so very, very eager to get into this particular issue: Elections Canada was one of the agencies audited by the commissioner in last week’s report, and we know that Poilievre is always interested in anything that makes Elections Canada look less than competent. (Yes, it’s an in and out thing.)

He points out that TBS didn’t rate the privacy protection for *any* of the agencies reviewd as “strong”. That’s pretty much a failing grade, he notes, before asking her where they should start. Stoddart points to the updating of privacy guidelines, as well as more training in the protection of personal information.

4:46:13 PM
And back to Bill Siksay, who wants to go back to the enhanced drivers licence in BC; he wonders if any of those concerns that her office has expressed have been addressed, and Stoddart notes that it is a “work in progress”. She points to the recent decision to “repatriate” a trial database that was going to be shared with American authorities, but which will now be housed in Canada; Bernier concurs, but Siksay doesn’t seem entirely reassured. He wonders if this is the only government ID she knows of that includes an RFID chip, and Stoddart says she’s sure that there are many such cards in use, but doesn’t give any particular examples; she also notes that her office has been told that the chips could be used on pallets of goods being imported to Canada. While it’s all well and good to track merchandise, what about when those shoes from Brazil walk out the door on the feet of a buyer who may not realize he or she can now be tracked as well. Eek. Now I’m getting nervous.

4:52:39 PM
Finally, Siksay wants to know more about an ongoing court challenge of the no-fly list, which the OPC, it comes as no particular shock or horror, is following intently — before it’s back to Borys for a third round; he wonders with how many foreign governments the Canadian government is sharing “personal, private files”; Stoddart admits that she isn’t aware of any law that would *limit* the information that can be shared, and – that can’t be right, can it? She must mean on top of *existing* privacy restrictions, that would apply specifically to foreign governments.

Onto passports, and Canadian missions, which use “locally hired staff” for which it is nearly impossible to do background checks; Stoddart doesn’t have an “exhaustive list” — her office just did spot checks; a sampling, as it were.

4:58:16 PM
You know, it could be kind of entertaining if Borys’ fixation with the Mounties and Poilievre’s obsession with Elections Canada somehow manage to collide. Somewhere other than the hallway outside the Conservative Party’s office, that is.

Anyway, as we roll that delicious idea around in our respective minds, it’s over to Earl Dreeshan, who wonders about identity theft, and what the OPC is doing to protect Canadians from the criminal sort of appropriation of personality. He also wants to hear more about Facebook, and Stoddart gives an enthusiastically thorough response, in which she touts the youth privacy public awareness website that her office has launched. You know, I’m not really sure if teens making ill-advised decisions about what photos to share on Facebook is actually a *legal* question, as far as the privacy implications, at least.

5:05:09 PM
Guy Lauzon takes the second half of what is likely the last round of questions – they still have to deal with a motion, right? – and he proceeds to go on and on about how long the office seems to take to investigate complaints, from his perspective as a former public servant, which is exactly as riveting as it sounds: Stoddart once again points to the backlog, but Lauzon urges her to set the target at 90 days; if a public servant has a year to deal with something, they’ll *take* a year to do so, even if they *could* get the job done far quicker with a tighter deadline. Wait, is he sure he wasn’t actually a *journalist* in his past life? Because the whole count-backwards-from-the-deadline-to-figure-out-when-you-have-to-start-writing thing is an industry standard.

5:11:50 PM
Pierre Poilievre wonders how the public sector is doing relative to the private sector, as far as data protection, and does his best not to droop with disappointment when she tells him that, by and large, government is doing a pretty good job. Remember, munchkin, you’re in government now – well, your party, at least – so you’re supposed to be happy when you hear stuff like that.

5:15:54 PM
OMG, YOU GUYS – I AM AN IDIOT. I assumed – and yes, I don’t need to hear the joke – that the Freeman motion had something to do with Access to Information, because that’s what she moved last time the committee met, but it *doesn’t* — not at all. She wants the committee to pick up where it left off with Camp In and Out last summer, and she has the support of the Liberals and maybe the NDP, which is why the government members are dragging this meeting out to the bitter end — so she can’t table the motion until the next meeting.

Man, I *completely* missed that one. I really wish the various committee sites would post motions, but I have so very many wishes when it comes to that if I started to list them all, it would quickly take on Unabomber manifesto-like proportions. In size, that is, not menace.

Okay, but you must admit that the In-and-out jokes I’ve been cracking throughout this meeting are considerably funnier when you realize what the Tories are doing.

5:26:32 PM
Four minutes to go, and Michelle Simson – a newbie Liberal – sort of does a roundup of the various worries she has, from the lack of robust, modern legislation to human resources; Stoddart gives a fairly upbeat recap of how things have gotten better – but then Russ Hiebert pops up to remind Stoddart of her last appearance, when she told the committee that the office was looking at ways to take a triage approach to complaints. Stoddart tells him that yes, that’s exactly what she did, and explains how that has helped move things along at a slightly faster pace.

Hiebert wonders what *other* reforms Stoddart would like to see, beyond the ten “quick fixes”, and the commissioner – who must be getting tired by this point – lists some of her other concerns, including national security; oversight of the RCMP and CSIS, as well as other LE bodies; expanding the Privacy Act to cover more agencies; protection of non-citizens when dealing with transborder dataflow, and – you know. Stuff like that.

5:33:57 PM
Although the chair looked like he was ready to let the committee keep on rolling, Kelly Block – who has, I have to say, a somewhat gratingly school principal tone to her voice – whines that *she* thought the meeting was supposed to adjourn at 5:30, and she arranged her schedule *around* it, and — anyway, Szabo shuts her down fairly conclusively, noting that actually, the meeting continues until the members run out of questions, or the chair shuts down debate because it’s gotten repetitive and redundant. He does give her the option of moving the motion to adjourn, and she does so.

5:37:24 PM
Huh. Despite all those questions that Pierre Poilievre, Earl Dreeshan and others had for the commissioner, the motion to adjourn was nearly unanimous. We’re done – at least for the night – which is a relief, although now I feel cheated out of a return to the in and out debate. I guess it’s a good thing I’ll be back on Wednesday, huh?