Privacy Act Reform: Moving Ahead in Today’s Privacy World

The Privacy Information Agency of Canada
In the wake of the recent reforms to Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (the Digital Privacy Act) which received royal assent on June 18, 2015, why is it that still no reforms have been made to Canada’s other federal privacy law, the Privacy Act? The Privacy Act sets out the ground rules about how federal government departments and agencies need to handle personal information. However, that was in 1983, when the Act was introduced; and, as we all know the world of personal information has undergone significant change since then!

Time for change!

Over the years, the Privacy Commissioner has presented recommendations to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics proposing reforms to the Act, but no reforms have yet been legislated and no in-depth comprehensive review has ever been initiated by the government.  

Now, we are at a stage where no quick-fix will satisfy the needs of today’s privacy world. The Privacy Act needs reform. It needs to be reborn. It needs to be modernized.

Modernization in an era of change and transparency
In March 2016, the current Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Mr. Daniel Therrien, submitted a letter to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics recommending amendments to the Privacy Act that touch on three main themes: technological changes; legislative modernization; and enhanced transparency. 

1.      Technological changes 

include clarifying requirements for information-sharing agreements; creating a legal obligation for government institutions to safeguard personal information; and making breach reporting mandatory. As it stands now, the Privacy Act has little to offer in terms of the rapidly changing technological landscape which has made it easier for government institutions to share personal information on a massive scale; and for privacy breach to become a regular occurrence.
2.      Legislative modernization 

Currently, the Act permits the Privacy Commissioner to make recommendations to federal departments and agencies on their personal information handling practices. These practices however, are not binding and may be ignored. The new proposed amendments will not directly compel institutions to comply with the Privacy Commissioner’s recommendations, but rather when an institution receives recommendations from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner they will have two choices: They may implement the recommendations or they may go to court for a declaration that they do not need to comply.

3.      Enhanced transparency

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