Privacy and Technology

John D. Gregory*

Osgoode Professional Development Program

September 30, 2004



That the evolution of technology affects privacy is common knowledge; it is a matter of frequent stories in the media.  Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, a very large information technology company, made headlines in April 2002, when he said that with current technology, “privacy is already gone.”  A year later, Phil Zimmerman, the inventor of the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption system, noted that Moore’s law – that computer power doubles every 18 months - threatens privacy, since the population of the world is not doubling that often.  More computing power is being aimed at the same number of people.

Whether the speakers consider the statements good or bad news may vary, of course.

While the legal right to privacy can be said in some ways to have sprung from Brandeis’ and Warren’s article in 1890,[1] it is fair to say that technology is why the topic is of such pressing interest today. The modern examination of privacy has a couple of starting points: in the United States, Alan Westin’s book Privacy and Freedom in 1970 and Arthur Miller’s in 1971 (The Assault on Privacy: Computers, Data Banks and Dossiers).  In France, a report on government information banks in 1974 led to the creation of the Conseil national sur l’informatique et les libertés in 1978.[2]  The French thinking was a big influence on the Organizations for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), whose  Guidelines for fair information practices and data flow in 1980 have influenced much of the discussions around the world since then.[3]  All of them were inspired by technology – in fact computer technology.

This informal note will look at the impact of technology on information practices, not by business sector but by cross-cutting a bit through technologies and practices.  Some of the issues at play in evolving technology may be clarified in this way.

The note is not intended to be exhaustive, either as to the technology or as to the legal implications, or yet as to the policy. It is not a legal analysis of how particular technologies accord or can be made to accord with existing or proposed laws.  It collects a few representative ideas that may be pertinent to the legal themes of this set of materials. 

We will look first at some of the big themes – what’s all the fuss about – and review the key elements of the debate about privacy and electronics.  Then we will look more closely at two areas where the privacy debate is very active – authentication and electronic public records.  This will permit a kind of conclusion, or at least an end to the paper.

Themes of talk – privacy and its limitations

We won’t spend time refining a definition of “privacy” – since the details can get difficult. For our purposes it can be said to be the ability of an individual to control information associated with him or her – his or her personal information (sometimes called personal identifiable information, which is to say information that can be linked with him or her, if it is not directly connected.)

One frequently comes across two related terms that should not be confused with privacy. The first is security, which involves protection of information from alteration or destruction, intentional or not.[4] The second is confidentiality, which involves protection of access to information, allowing those who should have access to it and barring those who should not.  This can be considered a subset of security.

One can have a good level of security or confidentiality or both without having privacy.  It is hard to have privacy without security and confidentiality, however.  Thus some of the methods of protecting privacy require increases in security or confidentiality.  These elements are sometimes comprehensively known as “data protection” – which are not all of privacy but which can be an important part of protecting privacy from computer technology.[5]

Impact on Privacy of technology

            Technology affects privacy in many areas, not just in information technology.  One thinks of the following examples, not as an exhaustive list:

-         heat sensors that can be used from remote locations – e.g. airplanes - to detect grow houses for marijuana cultivation;

-         compilations of patterns of electricity consumption that may be used for the same purpose;

-         automobile data reporting devices (such as Onstar in General Motors products) that log what the car is doing, and provide a way to locate it – sometimes without the consent of the owner, and sometimes with the result of providing data to show that the owner was driving dangerously before an accident;

-         spyware – microphones, cameras – that are becoming more sensitive and subtle. 

o       A recent article spoke of a “proof of concept” device – that actually existed, but was not yet on the market – that could read and copy mobile phones’ calling lists at a distance of over a kilometer, or from inside buildings at several storeys’ remove from the device;

o       A currently available web site offers 15 “spy cellphones” that can be turned on from a remote phone and listen in to conversations where the spyphone is, without giving the appearance of being active.[6]  Combine this with a phone with a good speakerphone feature and one can tap a meeting undetectably.

o       A new program allows callers to fake their identity on caller-ID, so the person called sees someone else’s name on his or her call display.[7]

-         keystroke monitors – that can read the strokes being made and allow the users to reconstitute the messages – including passwords. This was used by the FBI to get into computer records of an alleged – and thereafter convicted – gangster.

Many of these are physical not electronic technologies, though the last example applies to a computer and the spyphones have computer assistance.  At least three of them have been considered by the courts, so the law is keeping up to some extent.[8]

When one does turn to computers, one must also remember that computers presented privacy issues well before the Internet.  The concerns of the 1970s focused on databases, not on online sharing or spying.

These examples tell us that a focus on online privacy issues – or laws limited to online privacy – are not enough to deal with the threats, or to govern the opportunities, as the case may be.  That is why Canadian laws on privacy do not have much in them about the Internet – the principles are broader.

            That said, much of the interest today in the intersection of privacy and technology does arise because of computers online.  Here are a few of the features that make this world of interest.

-         Computers talk to each other – the Internet dates from 1969, its commercial use from a decade ago. There are now of course a lot of other forms of connection than the Internet itself, and the Net is bigger than the World Wide Web that has made access so easy

-         Individual computers have unique identifiers for the computer (not the user), so using the Net leaves a trace that can be analyzed, compiled and sold.

-         Internet communications are also interactive, in that information flows both ways in a manner that users may not suspect.  Data can be transferred to the users’ computers – as cookies are – without knowledge of the user. The cookies can do many things – many of them harmless or even desirable for the user.  They can analyse the contents of the computer and report it back to their source.  For example, Microsoft offers an automated software update service which can tell what is in the computer and transfer patches that install themselves.  Such a capacity has many less benign uses (and not everyone considers an automatic Microsoft update entirely benign).

-         “Malware” – Trojan horses, worms, viruses, programs like Back Orifice, and many others affect the operation of computers and sometimes allow the infiltrated computers to be used for the purposes of the originators.  That can be to launch spam, to participate in message attacks on chosen targets, or to collect information for marketing or for fraud.  In June 2004 a Trojan program was found online that would monitor outbound messages and detect any sent to a list of several prominent financial institutions, then send a copy of such messages – which could contain passwords for online banking – to a computer in Russia

-         Malware may affect private systems – of homes or businesses – but also work to collect data from big databanks. Intercepting a credit card number from a live message is much more difficult than tapping into a database of thousands of numbers – or of course just stealing a computer containing the information, a lower-tech threat.[9]

-         Technology using Internet protocol offline, or other forms of distributed computing and now grid computing, involves hooking up a lot of computer to each other to increase processing power or just efficiency.  This puts a lot more people into the information loop, with an ability to extract (personal) information for their own purposes.[10]

-         One might make a separate category of governments’ use of technology.  Many governments today are working towards “government online”.  The former federal Privacy Commissioner expressed three concerns about this movement – which he, like his Ontario counterpart, generally supported:

§         Risk of excessive access to data through online programs, with the temptation to engage in data profiling

§         Tendency to outsourcing, raising the question of what happens to personal information in the hands of third parties.  (We have heard a lot about this recently because of the risk of outsourcing to US companies that might be subject to secret disclosure requirements under US security legislation.[11])

§         Authentication systems are needed so government knows who it’s dealing with, but what information must be collected and what will it be used for?

Protection of privacy against technology-based threats:

            There are several methods to protect privacy against the threats from computer technology.

            = by physical  security

            One can restrict access to the physical computer to prevent tampering or abusive dissemination of information.  These days a common source of loss of personal information seems to come from the theft of laptop computers.[12] Better physical security would be a help in preventing that.

            = by technology

          Several technologies offer protection to privacy.

-         Encryption is one.  It contributes security and confidentiality to the privacy equation. If the personal information in the stolen laptops referred to above had been encrypted, then the thieves would not have been able to get at it.[13]

-         A group of  methods to protect privacy have become known as Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs).[14]

o       Among them are methods of defending against online threats – cookie fighters, spam filters, virus detectors, firewalls, and the like.  Security patches provided by software vendors could be included as well.

o       Some more advanced PETs include web anonymizers (permitting one to visit web sites without leaving any personal information) or pseudonymizers (permitting one to operate under a different name on different web sites); privacy coders that automatically judge the privacy policies of the web sites before permitting one’s browser to log into them (supported in some cases by sites’ technology announcing their policies in machine-readable form); and relational database analysis that can establish different security and access controls for the same person’s personal information on different aspects of the person’s files.[15]

While we are here, we should observe a major weakness of technological fixes for privacy: the use of “social engineering”, i.e. exploiting human weaknesses to circumvent the technology.  Why bother to crack encryption when one can persuade (or bribe) a secretary to provide a password?  Or cruise through an office and find passwords stuck to monitors?[16]  Or persuade people to tell them their information, by pretending to be someone else (“phishing” for personal information.)  “Trusted insiders” may prove less trustworthy than they are supposed to be.  One security analyst ran an ad last year reciting all the usual technical protections: anti-virus programs, firewalls, etc – “but what about Rose in accounting?”

= by law

The law provides a lot of protection for privacy now, including attacks that arise from technology.

·                    The Charter of Rights protects against unreasonable searches, in section 8.  The section has been used to prevent the use of heat sensor searches as described above.[17]

·                    The Criminal Code outlaws fraud, whether by identity theft or otherwise.  Other misuses of personal information are crimes regardless of the medium used to accomplish them.

·                    Four provinces have a statutory tort of invasion of privacy.[18]

·                    The common law can provide remedies as well.  A class action was launched against the business that lost a hard drive of government records in Saskatchewan in 2003 – though no data were shown to be extracted, so the losses suffered may be considered speculative.[19]

·                    There is an interesting discussion to be had – elsewhere – about the role of civil liability generally to enforce rights or to encourage good behaviour.  US statutes often provide private rights of action, hoping to inspire private enforcement of public policies.  The threat of heavy legal losses may inspire better practices than exhortation or publicity alone.

·                    The statutory rights to privacy are the subject of much discussion during this program and need not be elaborated on here.  They apply to most of the public sector and much of the private sector in Canada.  Health information is given special statutory coverage in several provinces.

·                    Why do we need these new(ish) laws when most of the things we are worried about are already illegal or subject to civil remedy?  In part at least because prevention is worth more than a cure – once the personal information is out there, it’s hard to control.

= by policies

            Numerous public or private guidelines or “best practices” are available, and many have been very influential in setting behaviour and, equally important, in establishing expectations of how personal information should be treated, and how technology should be designed if it is to collect, use or disclose personal information.  Here are a few examples.

-         the OECD guidelines of 1980 have been mentioned before.[20]  They are the source of most understandings of “fair information practices”, including PIPEDA.

-         The Model Privacy Code of the Canadian Standards Association (1996) was developed by a public-private collaboration and set best practices that influenced sectoral codes in many parts of the economy.[21]

-         Public sector policies – e.g. Ontario Management Board Directives –require privacy impact assessments on new IT projects, on programs that will permit data matching, and others.

-         Private sector privacy policies can be supported, checked, audited or otherwise made credible by web seals etc (which may in turn be enforced by law, e.g. Federal Trade Commission actions in the US that have held it to be a misleading trade practice not to comply with your published privacy policy.)

-         Human Resources policies (subject to union resistance, on occasion) may overlap with efforts towards education (next item).  This is in part where you deal with Rose in accounting

= by education

            A lot of information is available about how to protect privacy in an age of technology, both respecting the implementation of technology and respecting the human elements.[22]   This is perhaps the best way, as well, to reduce risk of “social engineering” attacks (as well as by good human resources policies and practices – subject to limits!)

            One may sum up the discussion so far by noting that technology is not all threats; it can protect as well as harm privacy.  Computer security experts speak of the TRA – threat/risk assessment – in deciding how to configure their systems. To that the modern designer adds a PIA – privacy impact assessment.  They are both forms of risk management – as (arguably) is most legal advice.[23]

It is generally accepted that one has to build in the privacy protection at the front end, as part of the architecture of an information system.  It is hard and expensive and disruptive – and maybe too late – to retrofit privacy. 

Policy factors

The discussion now needs to become a bit more complicated.  These assessments are not simple matters.  They are not merely technical, they require judgments of values – what values will our systems promote or protect.  Privacy is not the only value of a system.

This is clear enough in the policies and in the laws, where rules are followed by exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions.  One example from Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) uses a sextuple negative:[24]

s. 21(1)(f)         “A head shall refuse to disclose personal information to any person other than the individual to whom the information relates except if the disclosure does not constitute an unjustified invasion of personal privacy.”

The formulation may be completely justified, as a matter of drafting in its context. Certainly elements of it can be defended.  It is cited here to show the contradictory forces that the policy analysis has to take into account.

One can find dozens if not scores of examples, exceptions – express or implied – in FIPPA, PIPEDA, and other legislation across the country.

For the remainder of this paper, we will look at one way the governmental system works now – since there has been longer experience in Ontario at least with public sector privacy laws - and see its impact, then move on to a couple of thematic impacts for a closer look at how technology affects privacy with legal effect.

The way the FIPPA system works now, institutions are key.  Institutions include all the ministries of the government.  Ministries are independent in FIPPA – one can’t share personal information with another without statutory justification.  (There are justifications in the Act that this paper does not need to catalogue.)  The basic principle is that the government can’t talk to itself.  This is deliberate and actively defended, not an oversight in drafting.

This is understandable with sensitive information – e.g. tax information, where self-assessment depends on confidentiality, or health information, which needs some sharing but which should not be handed around for fear of prejudice as well as embarrassment.

When the Ministry of the Attorney General sent out a million letters to collect old unpaid fines, about ten years ago, it received a lot of complaints on the order of “My father died last week”, “We’re bankrupt”, and so on – as if the government had a master data base of everybody’s life events, kept right up to date (though people had not sent in the information they were supposed to).  People expect it – except when they object to it.  In any event, the master database does not exist, and FIPPA is there to prevent it.

What has this got to do with technology?  It illustrates the principles at work even before we go electronic – principles that can get tested hard when electronics are introduced.

The key issue here can be stated as privacy versus efficiency.  FIPPA requires the government to sacrifice efficiency for privacy, except for express places where it is preserved.  And electronic communications are often introduced on grounds of efficiency, or at least effectiveness.

The way out for the good lawyer or policy advisor is to redefine terms to justify the situation one finds oneself in.  The former federal Privacy Commissioner explained on the web site that “efficiency” does not just mean the least-cost solution.  Efficiency means getting to where you want to go with the least cost – and where you want to go includes privacy.

The question is how much privacy one wants, and at what cost.  That’s the debate, and it’s ongoing, and it’s inevitable.

This has of course system design implications: could the same level of protection of important values be achieved with less impact on program efficiency?    Could one impose principles across the board, rather than insist on ministerial silos?  Would it make a difference to take a PIPEDA approach – disclosure, consent, controls on use – to government as a whole? 

There are some limits to that approach for government. 

·                    government collects a lot of information without consent and has to do so, with the result that an opportunity for informed consent may not exist;

·                    the fear of privacy advocates is often that of big government – so they want to hobble government with internal baffles and barriers as well as with principles.  This way the privacy safeguards are easier to see and thus to enforce.  We will see this thinking at work in both our specific focus areas below. 

Two examples

Now we will look at two areas where technology and privacy intersect: one drawn from computer security practices – authentication ; and other drawn from where computers appear to enable expansion of public good – but with risks that privacy advocates are striving to bring under control – electronic public records.  We can see how these analyses of risks and the policy balances and legal measures can work in practice.  

All of this discussion represents work in progress.  The answers are not yet final and satisfactory for everybody.


This discussion is an example of the interplay between security and privacy (sometimes working in tension, sometimes together)

Authentication is the providing or assessment of evidence (possibly but not necessarily in the courtroom sense) of a source of a document or of the attributes of a person (or other entity).  The term is perhaps most frequently used of a demonstration that people are who they say they are – that a document actually comes from the person it purports to come from.  

It may also go to the integrity of the data – that there have been no alterations at any material time.  I use the term for the purpose of this discussion to deal with confirming the identity or other attributes of a person, since those attributes will be personal information in the sense we have been talking about today.

The need for authentication is not new and did not arise with any technology.   We have always needed to be able to satisfy ourselves about the identity or attributes of a person  (“the person carrying this signet ring has my authority”, “the person carrying this letter is trusted by the signer of the letter”) and of a document.

A frequent method of authenticating a document is the signature of originator of the document.  This is of course a long-standing practice, everybody knows it – to the extent that everyone used to know what a signature is!

In an electronic world, authentication becomes tricky.  There has been much talk of “electronic signatures”, though some discussions of it (like this one) have veered off into electronic authentication, which is not quite the same thing.

Technology reopens questions of identification and of how one links an identity (a term that needs always to be read as including “or other attribute”) to an electronic text (or image or other electronic “thing”).

Authentication involves two big challenges that analyze differently: 

i)                    authenticating someone you know – is it the person I want it to be?  (You know the attributes of the identity.)

ii)                   Authenticating someone for the first time – has this person attributes I want (for a transaction, for a service…) and do I trust the assertion of those attributes?

So one can say that identity is just another attribute.   This is true in principle, but knowing what is commonly called an identity may carry knowledge of other attributes.[25]

It is easier to do the first task, which can be called a “one to one” matching of authentication data – the purported attribute (identity) with the existing data.

It is harder to do the second – “one to many” matching – to see if person (attribute or collection of attributes) matches anyone in one’s whole population of possibly trustworthy people, or of known untrustworthy people!

Both tasks can be important for the person doing the authentication.  The second, however, risks more invasion of privacy of the person coming to be authenticated, since it may pick him or her out of a crowd, track him or her down, associate him or her with other attributes also known to the authenticator in ways that are hard to predict.

Why does one want to be authenticated?  What constitutes a satisfactory identity – and thus supports a satisfactory authentication of the identity – depends in part on why one wants to know, what the purpose of identification is.

Authentication runs on, or combines, three main methods: what you are,[26] what you know, what you have.  Examples in the physical world are my name – who I am, the key to my house – what I have - and knowledge of my address – what I know.  On the simple technology side, consider an ATM card – what you have – with its PIN – what you know.

A common method now for being authenticated for access to systems involves a user identification (name or variant or even pseudonym) and password (what you know) (as proof that the person asserting the name is the right person.) 

This may not be very secure: one forgets passwords, posts them close to machine – or chooses a weak password.  So there is a risk of improper access or even identity theft.  So systems designers look for more security.  But more secure access controls may bring different threats to privacy – partly because the technology is so powerful one is tempted to over-use it.

Here is an obvious low-tech example: a “single sign-on”, essentially the same user I.D. and password for everything.  This is often advocated as a way to simplify a complex electronic world.  However, if that one method is compromised, identity theft is very easy.

Here are two higher tech examples: (i) biometrics, (ii) public key infrastructure (PKI)

(i)                              biometrics – “what/who you are” – finger scan, retina scan, facial scan, etc (a handwritten signature is arguably a form of biometric). A system to use biometrics for authentication technically will have to produce acceptable numbers of false positives and false negatives. Different systems will err in different directions.  Some work better than others for some purposes, purely from the point of view of security.

The privacy issues in biometrics make some people very nervous.  The Information and Privacy Commissioner in Ontario has been very vigilant about government uses of biometrics.[27]  Concerns include:

-         Potential overuse – biometric data give people an identifier that may be used to trace them (one-to-many searches – IPC’s policy bans government use of biometrics if they possibly can permit this.  As a result there is no use of biometrics in the Ontario public sector today.)

-         A human being has only so many physical features – so tendency to use the readily accessible ones as a single sign-on, for lots of access/privileges, thus increasing risk of compromise

-         If the biometric identifier is compromised, how do you change what you are? You can’t get a new retina as you can a new password.

-         There are some promising limited uses, e.g. as access to a PKI key: a smart card reads a finger scan and gives access to the key: the biometric info doesn’t have to go beyond the card itself.

(ii)                            Public key infrastructure

Public key cryptography is a combination of technology, contract, and administrative rules that uses encryption to guarantee that a particular person has created a document (electronically) and that the document has not been changed between its creation and its reading.  It often uses a certificate to link the encryption system with a person (identity).   The details of how it works and the varieties of its implementation are beyond the scope of this paper.[28]

Three main elements of a PKI present privacy challenges:

a)                  Enrollment: One has to sign people up for a PKI and give them the keys to use to encrypt or sign or receive messages.   One needs to identify them clearly – often more clearly than they have been identified before, since their electronic messages will have only the “digital certificate” to identify them, not letterhead or signature or personal identification.

But does this present a risk of over-collection of personal information?  Who gets it, what’s it used for?  One has to face the serious need for detailed information if the assurance level of the whole system is to be maintained.

b)                  Management of information data: One has to deal with people entering and leaving the system, losing their keys and having them reissued, keeping keys so the managers can decrypt data when someone leaves.  There may be different criteria for public employees and members of the general public here.

Another management question involves storage of authentication data.  Is there a central repository of passwords or keys or certificates that a bad guy could attack and learn lots of useful stuff all at once?  Examples of credit card numbers abound.

c)                  Use of keys: what does an encryption key unlock?  What does it give access to?  What information is on a key?  The principle is not different from any single sign-on device, but the power and mystique of PKI is sometimes thought to justify such a system.  The policy preference these days is for a base key and additional keys for access to additional databases, or multiple keys (but that may involve heavy administration expenses.) 

In addition to these PKI-specific issues, one also faces frequent challenges to this kind of authentication system based on the alleged ability of people giving access to see details of what else one has access to – i.e. is the authentication method a kind of bridge to let others pass from one data bank to another.  When the Health authority sees your card to give you access to your health data, it also sees information about your driver’s record and your education and employment – or the information they keep to let you in would let their employees get into the other databases. The compromise could work a number of different ways.

This is not just a PKI issue.  It is an example of the internal barriers within government, referred to earlier, designed to preserve privacy by the design of the information flow itself, not just by rules applicable to conduct of people.

One notes here again the increasing levels of interplay between security and privacy – we have a system that takes one step towards privacy, but to secure it, one more step that again raises privacy issues. One example close to home: Ontario wants to do background checks to ensure that enrolment authorities (the people who sign people up to a PKI and confirm they are entitled to participate and get encryption keys) are trustworthy – they are the bedrock of the integrity of the whole system.  But those checks have been stopped in Ontario for labour relations and privacy reasons. The background checks themselves are alleged to tell the employer too much, and possibly irrelevant information, about too many people – people who are already employees and should not be put at risk of their employment for such information.  It is hard to say here who has missed the point worse … but it’s an example of the debate, and the complexity of administering an electronic authentication system.

That said, it should be noted that strong authentication can protect privacy as well.   There was some debate lately in the United States whether the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) required use of PKI to protect personal information.  The answer seems to be no, but draft regulations originally dealt with electronic signatures in a way that suggested it.[29]  The fact that the question was asked shows a different perspective on PKI, not as a threat but as an aid to privacy.)  Infomediaries claim that common use of Social Security Numbers prevents identity theft by ensuring one has the right person for other information in one’s possession.

One might be inclined to conclude that technology – all technology – may be value neutral, or at least subject to being used properly with proper attention to privacy principles.

            Recently the federal government ran a public/private study to develop principles for authentication systems in government and business.  They work at a high level but are intended to balance the need for strong authentication with the demands of privacy, while allocating principled and legal responsibility appropriately.[30]

            Here is an outline of the privacy principles among the Authentication Principles:

-         collect personal information only where necessary

-         use collected information only for authentication, no other purpose

-         focus if possible on business attributes not identity or other personal characteristic

-         collect, use and disclose only with consent of individuals

-         protect personal information against undue disclosure

-         comply with privacy laws and codes

-         include privacy in assessing compliance with authentication standards

The rules are not really different or surprising, but system designers would do well to keep them in mind. 

For example, one might think if unsigned electronic submission of business style registrations, where the personal identity of the person submitting is not important or not kept on paper anyway; anonymous access to government services where the same service or information would be provided to anyone; collection of attributes other than identity to justify services or to keep records of clients, because non-personal attributes may be harder to link to others in the construction of a data biography.[31]  

In short, adherence to the privacy principles in doing authentication requires alert system design at the planning and concept stage.  This is no surprise, but it is further confirmation that different studies with different priorities end up with the same recommendation.

Public Records

When public records go electronic, it is arguable that they change their nature.  They have always contained personal information, often subject to mandatory collection. But privacy was protected to a significant extent by their “practical obscurity” – it was hard to find the information and to collate it. 

For example, the Ontario Companies Branch has records on all corporations in the province.  One can read in the files who are directors of a particular company.  But what companies is a particular person a director of? One cannot find that out without looking at all the records!

It is arguable that electronic records make the public records really accessible to the public for the first time.  The electronic format provides real, convenient, searchable access – possibly even remote access.

However, technology also allows the information from the public records to be matched up with other information from other public records, or from private sources, to create data files on people – another element of the concern we’ve seen before.  One adds the usual policy concerns: what will these biographies be used for, and how accurate is the information anyway?

And we have to consider the permanence of these records, once the information is out there, out of official or public control.  Is there any “right to forgetting”, in principle (as there is in law in France, for example)?  One thinks of the law on pardons in Canada, which is only a partial example.   How long should difficulties or even bad actions be held against someone?  When do they become irrelevant?

So do we have to rethink why some records are public, or what information should be in them, or what uses can be made of them?

This note covers three areas of inquiry on the topic:

i)                    PIPEDA’s rules on public records

ii)                   IPC policies and their expression

iii)                 Electronic court records 

i)                    PIPEDA

PIPEDA says that one can use personal information in public records as prescribed by regulation.[32]  This rule applies to public records on paper or in electronic form, equally.   The regulation[33] says that one can use information in such records only for the purposes for which the public record is maintained.  So for example (my examples, not in the regulation) one could get names of directors of a corporation in order to send them suggestions about corporate policy.  One could use information about voters on a voters’ list to send them solicitations to vote for your candidate.

Amendments to the Election Act in Ontario in 1998 restricted the disclosure of an electronic version of the voters’ list and the purposes for which it could be used.[34]

The problem is knowing what the purpose is, in many instances.  Who gets to say what the purpose is: it’s not in the governing statute, usually.

The information may have been very widely used, so far, even if based on paper records.  The commercial information compilers provide the information to a lot of different users, in ways whose usefulness is hard to predict.  Finding missing people (including deadbeat support payors), checking elements of a credit history, creating genealogical studies – even targeting commercial messages to people likely to be interested in them. 

It is arguable that the commercial assembly of this information is more economical for all potential users than having the information assembled specially for special “permitted” uses – but this is an element of the “efficiency” argument we saw earlier.

At this stage, with little case law or direction from Commissioner’s orders, we can conclude that the PIPEDA test seems attractive in theory but it is sometimes very hard to apply.

ii)                  Information and Privacy Commission

In Ontario, FIPPA and MFIPPA (its municipal equivalent) allow the divulgation of personal information from records “specifically created to be public”.  The IPC interprets this to mean that even in the hands of another ministry the information is not public.  So the fact that ministry A has the personal information in a public record does not allow ministry B to release it.  This interpretation, which is at least not the only possible one, cost a minister her job once.  It’s another example of the intentional construction of internal barriers to flow of information through government, and through government to the outside, that I referred to in my general discussion of efficiency.

This is the context for IPC’s views on electronic records – they look hard for ways to limit disclosure of personal information in electronic public records. They are conscious of the ease with which the information can be matched and merged with other such information.  The issue was raised in 1994 by the then Commissioner, in his report to the Legislature.

Recently the issue came up with respect to municipal records of election contributions.  The Municipal Elections Act, 1996 says that records made under the Act are to be available to the public, despite MFIPPA.[35]  A reporter had looked at the paper records of thousands of contributions to scores of candidates in the 1997 municipal election.  He discovered that the clerk had an electronic record of the contributions, which was used to administer the rebates to contributors.  He asked for that record and the municipality refused, saying that the electronic record was (a) not made under the Act since it was for another purpose, and (b) too risky to let out for the kinds of reasons we have discussed.

On appeal to the IPC, the IPC agreed with the city.  It read the Act very narrowly to avoid the statement that “despite MFIPPA the records are public”.  The Commission went on to say why an electronic record risked excessive disclosure, so the paper records alone would serve the function of the Act, which was to allow public scrutiny of contributions and thus of the integrity of the election system.

The reporter appealed that ruling to the Divisional Court.  The Court had no sympathy with the Commission or the City.  It held that the IPC’s interpretation of the Municipal Election Act was wrong and the electronic record had been prepared under the Act and thus, despite MFIPPA, it must be disclosed.[36] 

That would have disposed of the appeal, but the Court went on to find that the IPC’s interpretation on electronic records was “unreasonable” (the standard of review for an expert tribunal).  Almost all the information in the electronic records was available in the paper records, which were admittedly public.  The difference in format did not change the obligation to disclose. 

Further, in the circumstances the statutory “public interest override” applied: the public interest in disclosure overrode any privacy interest of contributors.

iii)                court records

Though the court was not persuaded by the reasoning of the IPC in the Toronto election contributions case, Canadian courts as well as foreign ones have been wrestling with what electronic format does to the accessibility of court records.

Court records are presumptively public in Canada and in common law systems generally. The Supreme Court has held that privacy concerns, say in a family law case, do not override that presumption.[37]  But some privacy is protected: cases may be sealed or parties not named, where they are vulnerable (e.g. young offenders) or the details are particularly personal (e.g. “M v H”, a same-sex support case).  Publication bans are known, though they are supposed to be rare.

Llikewise some records “normally” sealed are released by law for pressing public purposes, notably information on sex offenders under “Megan’s Law” in US, “Christopher’s Law” here.[38]

These  considerations are at play for paper records, not just electronic.  So the idea of privacy is not new, in the courts.

In the electronic field, the issues can come up for: 

-         the names of reported cases (notably in France and Belgium, where online reports do not give individual parties’ names – but such a policy is arguably easier for them because cases are generally known by name of court and date, not names of parties as in common law);

-         the decision and reasons for judgment – judges are asked to consider what personal information they need to put in the reasons to justify their decision; and

-         court records – pleadings, evidence, transcripts, etc.  (There does not seem to be much problem with schedules, dockets, etc – it is generally admitted that these should proceed without editing.)

In Canada, a number of courts have been cutting back their online decisions.  The BC Supreme Court, for example, has stopped putting family law cases online, despite the Edmonton Journal case.  The Supreme Court of Canada does not publish factums electronically.

US federal and state courts have both collectively published policies on the topic in the past year or two (and lots of individual state courts have rules as well.)  Federal courts suggested not putting criminal materials on line at all, though some pilot projects have been allowed to go ahead since then.  State courts were more case-sensitive, as it were.  But both levels look to “redacting” – cutting out – sensitive personal information, which commonly includes Social Security Numbers, credit card numbers, and names of minor children.[39]

Note that there is a cost to this editing – who pays? Who is liable if the editing is not done?  Commercial law publishers have argued that the free case law websites won’t be able to keep up with the cost of all the editing for privacy.

Some people suggest that information can be specially coded in electronic documents at the input stage – by lawyers or judges - so the publication can edit itself, as it were, at the output stage.  That may presume a lot more technical sophistication than many such people now have.  The whole issue suggests more sensitivity to the privacy issue than we have had to have before electronic publication became popular.

The questions came up in Ontario when we were doing rules of practice for electronic filing. If documents are filed electronically, should they be available to other parties and to the public in this form?  If so, with what limits?  Limits by user: only parties and their lawyers?  Limits by information: cut out sensitive material?  Limits by type of case?  Limits by proposed use, e.g. no commercial use (but we have noted the claims that commercial data banks of some court information – e.g. bankruptcies – can be useful.)

Is it possible or even allowable to trace users of the records, or those who apply? Is there not a privacy right – justified in public policy – to consult public records anonymously?

In Ontario the proposed system was not going to produce electronic files in the court offices for a while, so we did not have to answer the questions to start the e-filing pilot projects.  But the questions are still valid.

And who decides anyway: the courts or the government, or the privacy commissioner?  With what input?  What are the right restrictions, given the constitutional value of openness?[40]

I do not have an answer to propose to these questions.  It seems to me that a good argument can be made for media neutrality – impose the same standards on paper and electronic records.  Start with the fair information practices or privacy principles that lie behind the CSA Code and PIPEDA.  

That means starting with trying to decide what the purpose of the collection is: why is the record public?  Then the restrictions and permissions will flow more readily. In other words, the PIPEDA regulation makes some sense in principle.

Do not expect that question to be answered easily.  Court records in particular have a history of wide and varied use – it is hard to predict how accountability may have to play out in particular situations for particular users – the public, the government, the court system, and individual litigants.  

Just one example of how hard it is to foresee all the possible legitimate uses: in the US (I do not know about Canada) there have been lawsuits against employers for ‘negligent hiring’ for not checking the background of people who offend once employed.  Court records checking could prevent liability.  One has to balance the right of “offender” to privacy against rights of co-workers to protection.

Information gatherers that made submissions to the US courts’ study said that mortgage rates in the US are about 2% a year less expensive than in Europe, because the more freely available personal information about borrowers allows lenders to better estimate credit risks, and thus lose less money, and thus charge less for loans.

Note that not all the privacy principles can apply equally here.  The consent principle in particular is often irrelevant.  People don’t necessarily participate in lawsuits voluntarily – criminal accused in particular, but civil defendants too – and they don’t necessarily get to define the public interest in publicity.

To sum up, court files and decisions are far from the only public records that raise privacy issues when they go electronic, but they may help focus lawyers’ attention on the issues that are common to many.


            Looking at these general observations and these two specific areas where technology has changed the terms or the urgency of the debate over privacy, what can we conclude?

·         Ultimately protecting privacy is a matter of policy, not a matter of technology (if I do say so myself, as a policy person not a technologist), and the law will reflect policy choices.

·            An IBM executive said at a privacy conference last year that the problem is that the scientists have not been talking enough with the policy people.

·              Obviously such conversations have been going on in Canada, and some fairly subtle collaborations have resulted – CSA Code, IPC publications, web sites – and elsewhere.

·              There is a vital role for education. It is fair to say, without disrespect for legislation or for regulators, that the principal responsibility for protecting privacy in the age of technology rests with the individual.

·            Education is getting lots of official help – and sometimes that help takes the form of law.  The legal form of help, and whether it does help, occupies much of the rest of this program.

·             The law of privacy makes much of a person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy”.  One of the challenges to education and to law reform is the ease with which evolving technology can outdistance people’s expectations.  If people do not understand the threats and how to respond in practice, then they look to the law to restrain the technology at least until the other means of protecting privacy can catch up.

·            The debate about the impact of technology on privacy is far from over – and technology keeps changing, so the debate will stay open.

* General Counsel, Policy Division, Ministry of the Attorney General (Ontario). The views in this note are not necessarily those of the Ministry.

[1] Brandeis and Warren, “The Right to Privacy”, (1890), 4 Harv.L.R. 193, online:  

[3] The OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data (1980), online:,2340,en_2649_34255_1815186_1_1_1_1,00.html

[4] We are talking here about the security of information, not “national security” against physical threats to life and property.  “Security measures” in that sense of the word can often threaten privacy, a subject discussed briefly later in this paper (see below, footnote 13.)

[5]This vocabulary is not used consistently by everyone discussing privacy.

[6] Original link was classified as dangerous by Google in 2013 and removed. Reference was to a site called 'endoacoustica' and a service called 'spy telephone'.

[8] Heat sensors: R. v. Hutchings, BCJ No. 3060 (CA) (permitted); R. v. Tessling, [2003] OJ No. 186 (C.A.), online: (prohibited) (appeal heard by SCC April 16, 2004); electricity records: R. v. Plant [1993], 3 S.C.R. 281 (permitted); keystroke monitors:  US v Scarfo, Criminal No. 00-404 (DNJ)(US)(permitted)(opinion online: ).

[9] Just as Willie Sutton robbed banks because that is where the money was, so today’s identity thieves tap into data banks because that’s where the information is.

[10] See for example Keck and Satola, “Beware Gridlock”, (2004) 13 Bus.Law Today, online:

[11] See for example Platt, “The Outsourcing Conundrum”, Ontario Bar Association, August 2004, online:

[12] California law requires owners of data bases of personal information to give notice to affected individuals if the data is compromised.  Reports of the notices given in the past year or so frequently involve lost laptops.  There is a list of such notices online at

[13] And California law would not require a notice to the individuals whose personal information was in the computer.

[14] Not to be confused with STEPS – security technologies enhancing privacy – again using the word “security” in the sense of national security.  Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner has a study of STEPS on the web site: under Publications and Presentations, Descriptions of Papers.

[15] A brief description of several PETs is found in a note by Barry Sookman in McIsaac, Shields and Klein, The Law of Privacy in Canada (Carswell:Thomson, looseleaf), section 1.3.

[16] Good security design will not make users change their passwords too often, or users will inevitably use memory aids that undermine the security.

[17] R. v Tessling, above, note 8, subject to the views of the Supreme Court of Canada, pending.

[18] British Columbia (R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 373); Manitoba (C.C.S.M. c P125): Newfoundland (R.S.N.L. 1990, c.P-22); and Saskatchewan (R.S.S. 1978, c. P-24). See also the Uniform Privacy Act of the Uniform Law Conference of Canada (1994), online:

[19] Information on the suit is at the plaintiffs’ lawyer’s web site, online: .

[20] Above, footnote 3.

[22] The web sites of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario ( ) and to a lesser extent the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (  offer a range of studies and recommendations on setting up technologies to respect privacy and to conduct one’s personal use of technology to minimize threats.

[23] Just as a lawyer sometime has to tell the clients they can’t do what they want, when the clients have gone too far down a path without talking to the lawyer, so too the privacy authority may tell the technologists they can’t build the  system they want, while if they had consulted their expert at the start, a way could have been found to comply with the law and achieve most or all of the business goals.

[24] Not counting “disclose”, which has negative form “dis” but positive meaning “give”

[25] Roger Clarke, an Australian privacy and IT expert, speaks of “entities” that may have many “identities”.  Identification is establishing certainty about an identity, without necessarily needing to know the core “entity” beneath it.   One’s name is only one possible identity and may not be needed for particular tasks of authentication.  His relevant publication are listed online:

[26] Roger Clarke says “what you can do”, like a signature.  “What – or who – you are” implies a biometric clue, and that may not be needed for most questions of identity.

[27] Section 29 of Ontario’s Electronic Commerce Act ,  S.O. 2000 c.17, limits the use of biometrics as an electronic signature because of representations made by the Commission.

[28] A very brief description of the principles is in my note “PKI in a (small) nutshell”, online: . (Some of the further links are out of date at the moment.)

[29] HIPAA privacy documents from the US government are online: .

[31] It is arguable that public sector needs for authentication differ in some respects – and thus in legal framework – from private sector needs.  See John D. Gregory, “Solving Legal Issues in Electronic Government: Authority and Authentication”, (2002) 1 Canadian Journal of Law and Technology No 2 page 1, online:

[32] PIPEDA paragraphs 7(1)(d)(collection), 7(2)(c.1)(use), and 7(3)(h.1)(disclosure).

[34] Election Act, R.S.O. 1990 c. E.6, section 17.4, enacted by S.O. 1998 c.9 s.15.  The section is worded for any media, but it was inspired by the prospect of an electronic list being made available.

[35] S.O. 1996 c.32 Schedule, s. 88(5).

[36] Gombu v. Ontario (Assistant Information and Privacy Commissioner), [2002] O.J. No. 1776.

[37] Edmonton Journal v. Alberta (Attorney General), [1989] 2 S.C.R. 1326.

[38] Christopher’s Law (Sex Offender Registry), S.O. 2000 c.1.

[39] US federal court information is online: . State court information is also online: .

[40] The Canadian Judicial Council published a draft framework for a policy on electronic court records, in 2003.  It is online:  The Council solicited and received comments from the public but has not yet published further reflections on the topic.