Is privacy really at the heart of mandatory census change?

(This commentary first appeared in a slightly different version in the Hill Times on August 23, 2010) 

Big policy decisions are always a balancing act. Nothing unusual thus when the government invokes one interest—privacy--to justify the cancellation of the mandatory long census, which serves another interest--the gathering of reliable information about Canadian citizens for the purpose of good policy making. The increased promotion of privacy could arguably outweigh the negative impact of this decision, which critics say will affect the quality of the data of Statistics Canada.

A crucial claim which has, however, not really been questioned is whether this is indeed about privacy. Invoking privacy in the context of the collection of personal data seems intuitively appealing. Yet, using it to justify the abolishing of a mandatory form reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. Worse, the proposed changes to the government census do not diminish but rather increase privacy concerns.

The concept of privacy is notoriously difficult to define. It relates among other things to the right to be let alone, the right to make decisions about one's life, the importance of having a private space, and the need to protect confidential personal information. But privacy cannot mean that we are fully free to decide whether we will give personal information to legitimate governmental agencies. Otherwise governments could not work. Our tax system, public health care, land registration, driving licenses, the judicial system, employment benefit plans, and the governmental bureaucracy in general, they all require the collection of highly personal and detailed information, often with criminal sanctions attached. Yet, no reasonable person would argue that these mandatory collections in and of themselves violate privacy.

Experts agree that the collection, use, and sharing of information does not violate privacy if so-called 'Fair Information Practices' are respected. This concept underpins all our privacy statutes and regimes in Canada. It refers to a set of internationally accepted norms that tell us how personal information should be dealt with. These norms recognize that the public interest often requires the mandatory collection of information. They emphasize that such collection needs a legitimate goal, that good security measures have to to be in place, and  that inappropriate use has to be avoided.

No one has questioned the importance of Statistics Canada data or criticized how it protects its data. In fact, the agency is widely cited as an example of how a public institution can ensure privacy protection through sophisticated collection, storage and access policies. In a recent publication, Lisa Austin and I have recommended that its governance system could be used as a model for other areas of public life to ensure adequate privacy protection, for example in the context of biomedical research.

The mandatory nature or criminal sanctions are also not a problem from a privacy perspective. Mandatory gathering of information is perfectly fine, if it there is a strong public interest reason behind the collection, and if solid data protection is put in place. Criminal sanctions are often simply a reflection of the importance we attach to a regulated activity. They don't necessarily have to be used to work.They may be seen as severe, but they do not violate privacy.

Perhaps surprisingly, while privacy does not require abolishing the mandatory census, it can be invoked to defend the mandatory nature of the system. To respect Fair Information Practices, agencies have to make sure that the information they gather is reliable and can be used for the purpose for which it is being collected. Since abolishing the mandatory long census undermines the quality of the data, it also affects the justification for the collection of very personal information.

It is worrisome also that while privacy protection is invoked to partly dismantle and undermine a privacy-respecting system, comparatively little is done by our governments against the extraordinary volume of detailed personal information that is being gathered when we buy products, use credit cards, collect air miles, search the internet, buy pharmaceutical products, visit private clinics, and participate in medical and other forms of research. None of these activities is surrounded by a privacy promoting governance system that can stand up against the Statistics Canada one. Commentators have pointed out for years, for example, the privacy-concerns associated with the lack of a good governance system surrounding medical research .

Reliable information is the basis for good public policy and an essential tool for a good functioning democracy. A publicly accountable information system can function as a bulwark against private control over information, political manipulation or fabrication of data, and misleading commercial use of data. Is there any link here with other recent government initiatives that run counter to available statistical evidence? There is reason to be worried, from a privacy and from a democratic perspective, when a government undermines its own internationally renowned and independent data-gathering agency.