Friday, October 22, 2004

Government rush leaves your privacy at risk

VICTORIA - Mostly, it comes down to trust and common sense when your government says it has a plan to protect your privacy from a powerful neighbour.
The BC Liberals have - after almost no debate or public consultation - just passed a law that they say will protect British Columbians' privacy from the extraordinary provisions of the USA Patriot Act.
You should be skeptical.
This issue came up in the spring, when the Liberals decided they could save money by contracting out the administration of the Medical Services Plan and Pharmacare. The idea was to hire a private company - one that already had the software needed - and save a lot of money.
That's reasonable, with the right safeguards.
But the BC Government Employees' Union raised an alarm. In the wake of 911, the U.S. government had passed the USA Patriot Act. It pulls any companies with significant operations in America into the service of the U.S. government. They are required to hand over any information they have, on people anywhere in the world, over to the FBI, and they're forbidden to tell anyone.
So if the B.C. contracting went ahead, the U.S. government could download your medical records, your credit rating, the prescription drugs you and your children used, and plunk them into a database that would pop up the next time you decide to do a weekend in Washington State.
Why would they want to? Mostly because they can. People who have access to information want to gather and use it. It may prove useful, and it certainly justifies someone's job.
Don't worry, say the Liberals. We think we've fixed the problem with a new B.C. law. Trust us.
But trust has already been shaken. When the government appeared ready to contract out the MSP records to a U.S. company this spring, the BCGEU warned of the privacy risk. Health Minister Colin Hansen was dismissive: "The privacy of information is not compromised in the least way possible," he said then.
He was wrong. The privacy of information would be compromised, dramatically, as the government was later forced to admit.
The government still wanted to go ahead with the MSP/Pharmacare deal with Maximus Inc. of Arizona. So it has just passed legislation that is supposed to protect your private information from the reach of the Patriot Act. Companies and government would be barred from storing information outside Canada, or disclosing it. If they were asked for information by foreign government, they would have to report the request.
That leaves big companies with a choice. Obey the B.C. law. Or obey the USA Patriot Act.
This is where common sense comes in.
Because the choice is no choice at all. Disobey the Patriot Act and companies risk serious penalties, the loss of huge contracts and possible political problems in the United States, the world's largest economy. Disobey the B.C. law, and you pay a fine.
Which option would you choose when the FBI came calling?
What's most alarming is the government's baffling rush to pass this bill.
B.C. Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis is weeks away from delivering a major report on the implications of the Patriot Act, and an assessment of the risks. He has received submissions from corporations and governments, and the best advice.
But the B.C. government has rushed through this legislation. It's not retroactive, so there's no need for haste. Delay doesn't increase the risk.
The obvious conclusion is that the government is in a big hurry to get on with contracting our information to U.S. corporations.
Privacy is a significant issue in these days of supercomputers and global networks. Your business - what you tell your doctor, how your children are doing, what you own and what you owe - should be your business.
It's important. and by rushing through a law, without the privacy commissioner's report., the government has failed to recognize the value British Columbians place on their right to personal privacy.
Footnote: How many questions or suggestions from Liberal MLAs as the changes moved through the legislature? Sadly, none. I would have expected backbenchers to have suggestions or questions about the details of the legislation that's supposed to stand behind your privacy and the FBI's appetite for information.


j0rd said...

CIBC visa just changed it privacy policy to allow the US full access to my canadian banking records. I phoned and bitched, but nothing came of it. This stuff sickens me.

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