It’s hard being the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. The OPC is responsible making sure all is right in commercial sector and federal government sector privacy. It has a pretty small operating budget, yet issues in these sectors are meaty and novel – I dare say harder to deal with than the privacy issues raised in the health and provincial public sectors. More than anything, meeting the OPC mandate is particularly challenging because the mandate is to enforce a principled statute that affords a “right to privacy” that lacks a well-understood meaning.
It is in this context that the OPC issued its 2016-2017 Annual Report to Parliament. The report includes a 24 page “year in review” on PIPEDA that follows the OPC’s public consultation on informed consent and some polling work that shows 90% of Canadians are concerned about their privacy. The OPC concludes that the PIPEDA commercial sector regime is at a crossroads – making some suggestions about new directions, giving some practical guidance and arguing for more enforcement power.
This post is to highlight the most significant new directions and practical guidance and to provide a short comment on the argument for more enforcement power.
The most significant new directions and practical guidance:
- The OPC will expect organizations to address four elements in obtaining informed consent – what personal information is being collected, who it is being shared with (including an enumeration of third parties), for what purposes is information collected, used or shared (including an explanation of purposes that are not integral to the service) and what is the risk of harm to the individual, if any.
- The OPC will draft and consult on new guidance that will explicitly describe those instances of collection, use or disclosure of personal information which we believe would be considered inappropriate from the reasonable person standpoint under subsection 5(3) of PIPEDA (no-go zones).
- The OPC says that “in all but exceptional cases, consent for the collection, use and disclosure of personal information of children under the age of 13, must be obtained from their parents or guardians” and “As for youth aged 13 to 18, their consent can only be considered meaningful if organizations have taken into account their level of maturity in developing their consent processes and adapted them accordingly.”
- The OPC will encourage industry to develop codes of practice and fund research for the purpose of developing codes of practice to address more particular, sector-specific challenges – presumably a mechanism by which organizations will be able to seek safe harbour.
- The OPC will make greater use of its power to initiate investigations “where [it sees] specific issues or chronic problems that are not being adequately addressed.”
Then, there’s the OPC’s argument for more enforcement powers. Specifically, the OPC wants Parliament to drop the “reasonable grounds” restriction from its audit power so it can engage in truly proactive audits, it wants the power to levy fines and it wants PIPEDA to feature a private right of action – all of which would invite a departure from the ombudsman model the OPC has operated under since PIPEDA came into force in 2004.
I personally dislike the ombudsman model of enforcement because it doesn’t come with the procedural safeguards associated with more formal enforcement models and can therefore give the ombudsman a frightening degree of “soft” power. This said, the prospect of big fines and lawsuits based on substantive rules that are poorly defined and understood is even more frightening to to those in the business of privacy compliance and defence. This is the irony of the OPC report: at the same time the OPC admits that the substance of the PIPEDA is, at the very least, “challenged” it asks to enforce it with a new hammer. Now going through an admittedly bad experience with CASL – legislation that the OPC would argue is much more “ineffective” than PIPEDA (see p. 34) – we can readily foresee the wasted compliance costs that the proposed change to PIPEDA could invite. Even if business is indeed responsible for the great concern about privacy that the OPC’s polling effort reveals, this is nonetheless a valid position for business to take going forward.