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Privacy law eroding: watchdog

Jul 21 2012

B.C.'s information and privacy law is being undermined by the provincial government, says Elizabeth Denham.

The information and privacy commissioner said recent government legislation that bypassed or overrode the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act was chipping away at 20-year-old protections for privacy and government transparency.

"I am very concerned," said Denham, who released her office's annual report this week.

"I hope this isn't a trend, but when we saw four pieces of legislation work their way quickly through the legislature, and we had very little time to get our message to the ministries during confidential consultation, we are really concerned about that."

The four bills, which changed rules for animal health, ferries, emergency disclosure and PharmaCare, "chip away" at a careful balance between a legal right to privacy and mandated government transparency set by the legislature 20 years ago, she said.

The animal health, ferries and PharmaCare bills limit the public's ability to access information being used by the government, while the Emergency Intervention Disclosure Act subjects individuals to privacyinvasive disease testing.

The government introduced and passed the bills so quickly - within a matter of weeks - that there was little time to consult with ministers and suggest changes, a move Denham called disappointing.

"I think there's a lack of deep policy analysis in the development of the bills," she said. "I'd also suggest maybe a lack of understanding throughout government in the principles and the legal basis of freedom of information and protection of privacy."

The minister responsible for freedom of information, Margaret McDiarmid, said in a statement she disagrees that the government is chipping away at FOI laws.

"I want to assure you that privacy protection is a major consideration when developing new legislation," she said. "However, in any situation that arises, including the development of legislation, it is necessary to balance competing priorities. These priorities include privacy and access, as well as the needs of citizens and government."

NDP critic Doug Routley said the government is "surreptitiously trying to dismantle the act in a piecemeal fashion" by attacking it on several fronts.

The Liberal government views privacy and transparency requirements enshrined in law as obstacles to its agenda, he said.

It is "piecemeal repeal," said Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Information and Privacy Association.

The government should have the courage to stand in the legislature and spell out how it plans to change freedom of information rules, rather than hiding those changes in bits of unrelated legislation, he said.

He called Denham's public complaints a "hugely worrying" sign.

Denham was a former federal assistant privacy commissioner before taking the B.C. job in 2010.

She said her office, which is the independent privacy and transparency watchdog for the provincial government, was busier than ever in the past year, handling complex files and public complaints while being strained by a limited budget.

Denham said she's also being asked by ministries to do more proactive assessment of ministry projects, but noted it was ultimately the government's responsibility to adhere to the FOI law.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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