The wave of public sector reform is coming, so it’s time to start thinking and talking about they best way achieve strong privacy protection in the Ontario public sector. I had the honour of participating the University of Toronto’s Privacy Day celebration yesterday, including by sitting on a panel and giving the short prepared remark below. I’m all for privacy protection and modernization, but the implementation of administrative monetary penalties in the Ontario public sector (like now in Quebec) would fundamentally change the relationship between the Ontario public sector and its regulator and not serve the public or education sectors well.
Yesterday, I happily gave a good news presentation on cyber claims legal developments to an audience of insurance defence lawyers and professionals at the Canadian Insurance Claims Managers Association – Canadian Independent Adjusters’ Association – Canadian Defence Lawyers joint session.
It was good news because we’ve had some recent case law developments create legal constraints on pursuing various common claims scenarios, namely:
- The lost computer, bag or other physical receptacle scenario – always most benign, with notification alone unlikely to give rise to compensable harm, a trial judgement looking positively at a one year credit monitoring offer and proof of causation of actual fraud a long shot at best
- The malicious outsider scenario – for the time being looking like it will not give rise to moral damages that flow from an intentional wrong (though this will be the subject of an Court of Appeal for Ontario hearing soon in Owsianik)
- The malicious insider scenario – partly addressed by a rather assertive Justice Perell finding in Thompson
We’re far from done yet, but as I say in the slides below, we’re at the early stages of an inflection point. I also give my cynical and protective practical advice – given the provable harms in the above scenarios flow mainly from the act of notification itself, notify based on a very strong analysis of the facts and evidence; never notify because there’s a speculative risk of unauthorized access or theft. Never a bad point to stress.
I spoke today at the Schedule 2 Employers’ Group virtual speakers series about privacy and the pandemic. It was a good chance to describe all of the ways we use information to manage the risk of workplace exposure to COVID-19. We looked closely at the major information flows – screening, location tracking, exposure notification – and I even did a little riff on defense in depth. Slides below for your viewing pleasure.
On Monday I addressed an audience a the Ontario Regulatory Authorities continuing professional development conference on the topic of cybersecurity. It was a good chance to record an updated and concise view of the Canadian threat environment along with the cyber defence and incident response issues facing Canadian organizations. Here are the slides for your reading pleasure.
I’ve done a fair deal of enjoyable work on matters relating to a union’s right of access to information – be it under labour law, health and safety law (via union member participation in the health and safety internal responsibility system) or via freedom of information law. Today I had the pleasure of co-presenting to the International Municipal Lawyers Association on the labour law right of access with my colleague from the City of Vaughan, Meghan Ferguson.
Our presentation was about how the labour law right has fared against employee privacy claims. In short, it has fared very well, and arguably better in Ontario than in British Columbia.
I don’t believe the dialogue between labour and management is over yet, however, especially as unions push for greater access at the same time privacy sensitivities are on the rise. The advent of made-in-Ontario privacy legislation could be an impetus for a change, not because it is likely to provide employees with statutory privacy rights as much as because the new legislation could apply directly to unions. So stay tuned, and in the interim please enjoy the slides below.
We all know that the Supreme Court of Canada decided Sherman Estate v Donavan on June 11th. I just got to it today, and was surprised at its significance to information and privacy law beyond the open courts principle itself. Here is a quick note on its three most salient broader points.
The Court held that records filed in court by estate trustees seeking probate ought not to have been sealed given the presumption of openness that applies to all court proceedings. In doing so, however, it recognized for the first time that privacy alone (whether or not it encourages access to justice) could be “an important public interest” that warrants a departure from the presumption.
Point one – sensitive information is information linked to the biographical core
Most significantly, the Court said that not any privacy interest will qualify. Privacy is such a subjective, difficult and confused concept that many individuals with genuinely felt “sensibilities” must be precluded from claiming that their privacy interest weighs against the openness of a court proceeding. A privacy interest only qualifies as “an important public interest” if the information at stake is “sufficiently sensitive such that it can be said to strike at the biographical core of the individual.”
The biographical core is a concept first articulated in R v Plant in 1993 and has since been criticized by privacy advocates as a concept that limits privacy protection. Yet here it is, front and centre as the limitation on privacy that will now protect the transparency of our justice system. The Court links the biographical core to the protection of human dignity, as it explains in the following paragraph:
Violations of privacy that cause a loss of control over fundamental personal information about oneself are damaging to dignity because they erode one’s ability to present aspects of oneself to others in a selective manner (D. Matheson, “Dignity and Selective Self-Presentation”, in I. Kerr, V. Steeves and C. Lucock, eds., Lessons from the Identity Trail: Anonymity, Privacy and Identity in a Networked Society (2009), 319, at pp. 327‑28; L. M. Austin, “Re-reading Westin” (2019), 20 Theor. Inq. L. 53, at pp. 66‑68; Eltis (2016), at p. 13). Dignity, used in this context, is a social concept that involves presenting core aspects of oneself to others in a considered and controlled manner (see generally Matheson, at pp. 327‑28; Austin, at pp. 66‑68). Dignity is eroded where individuals lose control over this core identity‑giving information about themselves, because a highly sensitive aspect of who they are that they did not consciously decide to share is now available to others and may shape how they are seen in public. This was even alluded to by La Forest J., dissenting but not on this point, in Dagg, where he referred to privacy as “[a]n expression of an individual’s unique personality or personhood” (para. 65).
The term “fundamental personal information” used here is sure to be re-used by privacy defence counsel to deal with disputes about sensitivity. And although the Court stressed again and again that its reasoning was made for the open courts context, we need the authority. The concept of sensitivity is as confused as any aspect of privacy law. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada finds personal information to be sensitive in virtually every one of its reports. It has found home address information sensitive, for example, yet the Ontario Superior Court of Justice held that home address information doesn’t warrant common law privacy protection. Sherman Estate is going to be helpful to those of us who are striving for a clear and predictable boundary to privacy claims.
Point two – the concept of privacy is a mess
The Court has already said that privacy is “somewhat evanescent” (Dagg) and “protean” (Tessling), and has noted that scholars have criticized privacy as being a concept in “theoretical disarray” (Spencer). In Sherman Estate, the Court revisits this criticism and, for the first time, clearly applies it to limit the scope of privacy protection. It says:
Further, recognizing an important interest in privacy generally could prove to be too open‑ended and difficult to apply. Privacy is a complex and contextual concept (Dagg, at para. 67;see also B. McIsaac, K. Klein and S. Brown, The Law of Privacy in Canada (loose‑leaf), vol. 1, at pp. 1‑4;D. J. Solove, “Conceptualizing Privacy” (2002), 90 Cal. L. Rev. 1087, at p. 1090). Indeed, this Court has described the nature of limits of privacy as being in a state of “theoretical disarray” (R. v. Spencer, 2014 SCC 43,  2 S.C.R. 212, at para. 35). Much turns on the context in which privacy is invoked. I agree with the Toronto Star that a bald recognition of privacy as an important interest in the context of the test for discretionary limits on court openness, as the Trustees advance here, would invite considerable confusion. It would be difficult for courts to measure a serious risk to such an interest because of its multi-faceted nature.
This is another very important paragraph for privacy defence counsel. I have relied on the first chapter of Daniel Solove’s Understanding Privacy more than once in a factum as a means of inviting a conservative response to a novel privacy matter. Now we have clear Supreme Court of Canada authority on point.
Yes I am arguing against privacy protection, but it is because I deeply crave clarity. Organizations are faced all manner of novel and bold privacy claims, the merits of which are too difficult to assess. We need a clearly defined limit to what counts as a privacy interest worthy of legal protection, whatever it is. This is another reason Sherman Estate is good: the first step to healing is to admit you have a problem!
Point three – a step towards unification, and a half step back
This is why it is so disappointing that the Court keeps saying that privacy is in theoretical disarray without taking up the challenge of fixing the problem.
As I’ve explained, it repeatedly tied its reasoning to the open courts context, and although it took the novel step of relying on Charter jurisprudence to help with its delineation, the Court felt it necessary to make clear that a reasonable expectation of privacy protected by section 8 of the Charter is different.
I pause here to note that I refer to cases on s. 8 of the Charter above for the limited purpose of providing insight into types of information that are more or less personal and therefore deserving of public protection. If the impact on dignity as a result of disclosure is to be accurately measured, it is critical that the analysis differentiate between information in this way. Helpfully, one factor in determining whether an applicant’s subjective expectation of privacy is objectively reasonable in the s. 8 jurisprudence focuses on the degree to which information is private (see, e.g., R. v.Marakah, 2017 SCC 59,  2 S.C.R. 608, at para. 31; Cole, at paras. 44‑46). But while these decisions may assist for this limited purpose, this is not to say that the remainder of the s. 8 analysis has any relevance to the application of the test for discretionary limits on court openness.
Privacy shouldn’t have a different meaning in the open courts context and the Charter context and the common law/civil context. Why should it? It’s a fundamental right is it not? Has all the talk about contextual significance caused us to be too conservative? Lazy, even? Certainly facts can be assessed in their proper context under a unified concept?
We have unified our reading of differently worded anti-discrimination statutes to provide for clear and strong law across the Country given the importance of human rights protection. I fail to see why we are so hesitant to unify our privacy law.
Sherman Estate is therefore a good decision in my eyes, but not great, and there is more work to be done.
[This is a personal blog, and these are my views alone. They do not reflect the views of my firm or colleagues.]
I had the honour of presenting on cybersecurity oversight today at the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada annual Governance Summit. The theme ended up being about leadership and empowerment. I’d like board members to believe that the information security knowledge they require to meet their duties is well within their grasp and to feel a little excited about the learning process. Slides below FYI.
Manitoba Ombudsman Jill Perron has issued her report into Manitoba Families’ 2020 e-mail incident. The incident involved the inadvertent e-mailing of personal health information belonging to 8,900 children in receipt of disability services to approximately 100 external agencies and community advocates. It is such a common incident that it is worth outlining the Ombudsman’s incident response findings.
Manitoba Families meant to transfer the information to the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth to support a program review. It included information about services received. Some records included diagnoses.
Manitoba Families mistakenly blind copied the external agencies and advocates on an e-mail that included the information in an encrypted file and a follow-up e-mail that included the password to the file. It had made the same mistake about a week earlier. Several agencies alerted Manitoba Families to its error, and it began containment within a half hour.
The Ombudsman held that Manitoba Families’ containment effort was reasonable. She described it as follows.
Attempts at recalling the email began minutes later at 8:29 a.m. and continued at various intervals. Also, at 8:35 a.m., CDS sent an email to all unintended recipients noting in bold that they were incorrectly included on a confidential email from Children’s disAbility Services and requested immediate deletion of the email and any attachments. Follow up calls to the unintended recipients by CDS program staff began to occur that morning to request deletion of the emails and a list was created to track these calls and the outcomes. A communication outline was created for these calls which included a request to delete emails, a further request that emails be deleted from the deleted folder and that any emails that went to a junk email folder also be deleted…
In January 2021, we received additional written communication from the program stating that all agency service providers and advocates were contacted and verified deletion of the personal health information received in error. The log form created to track and monitor the name of the organization, the date and details of the contact was provided to our office.
The Ombudsman reached a similar finding regarding Manitoba Families’ notification effort, though she needed to recommend that Manitoba Families identify the agencies and advocates to affected individuals, which Manitoba Families agreed to do upon request.
What’s most significant – especially given class action proceedings have been commenced – is a point the Ombudsman made about evidence that Manitoba Families appears not to have gathered.
In addition to assuring families about the deletion of the email, additional information such as who viewed the email, if the attachment was opened and read, whether it was forwarded to anyone else or printed, whether it was stored in any other network drive or paper file or, conversely, that no records exist – can be helpful information to provide those affected by a privacy breach. It is best practice, therefore, to provide families with as much assurance as possible about the security of their child’s health information.
The question is, what is one to make of an arguable shortcoming in an incident response investigation? I say “arguable” because the probability of any of these actions occurring is very low in the unique circumstances of this incident, which involved trusted individuals receiving a password-protected and encrypted file. Manitoba Families ought to have collected this evidence because they called the e-mail recipients anyway, it is helpful and was probably available for collection. If it did not do so, however, I believe it is perfectly acceptable to for Manitoba Families to stand by the scope of a narrower investigation and and put the plaintiff to proof.
On April 15th, the Court of Appeal for Manitoba held that an accused had no reasonable expectation of privacy in information that a rental car agency provided to the police without a warrant.
The police were investigating a fatal shooting. The shooter was in a rental car that belonged to a specific agency, they knew. When the police asked, the agency identified the co-accused as the renter and the accused as an authorized driver. It also provided their cell phone numbers, drivers license numbers and credit card numbers.
The Supreme Court of Canada decision in Spencer dictates that the PIPEDA allowance for volunteering information to the police does not vitiate one’s expectation of privacy for the purpose of Charter analysis. The Court of Appeal acknowledged this, and as in Spencer, it also held that contract language allowing for the disclosure of personal information as “required or permitted by law” was “of no real assistance.”
However, the Court of Appeal distinguished Spencer on other grounds. Its decision turns on the following key factors:
- the rental agreement allowed the agency share information with law enforcement “to take action regarding illegal activities or violations of terms of service”
- section 22 of the Manitoba Highway Traffic Act requires agencies to keep a registry of renters that is open to public inspection (even though the registry is to include “particular’s of the [renter’s] drivers license”)
- the overall context – i.e., that driving is a highly regulated activity, with one’s identity as an operator of a vehicle being something that is widely known and ought to be widely knowable
Privacy advocates will take issue with the Court’s reliance on the rental agreement term, though the case does rest on two other significant factors, including a provision of Manitoba law that the accused did not challenge. On a quick look, I see that Saskatchewan has the same provision.