A government project to merge the personal information of British Columbians who use social services into a giant digital database would result in Big Brother-like scrutiny of citizens, says a provincial privacy advocate.
The B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has called on the province to give more thought to the rollout of the six-year, $181-million Integrated Case Management system, suggesting it could have serious privacy ramifications.
"They would know where, what you're saying, when, how, what you're reading, what your health is, what your family life's been like, your educational background - basically everything," Darrell Evans, the association's executive director, told reporters Wednesday.
"It will be a network of different databases that amounts to complete government scrutiny of your life."
The project was announced two years ago. It was referenced in the Throne Speech Feb. 9 and on Feb. 12, the same day as the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Games, the province announced it had contracted Deloitte Inc. to develop the system.
In a news release, the province said the project's goal is to foster a "more client-centred service-delivery system" to about 200,000 citizens, providing "better outcomes for clients."
The database would link files from groups dealing with everything from income assistance and employment programs to child welfare, family development, youth with special needs and youth justice.
Mr. Evans said most people probably don't know the database is under way.
"How many of the public know the government has the plan to put all their personal information … into one file for access by whoever the government determines is right?" he said.
The association and the United Community Services Co-op released a two-year-long, 72-page study funded by the Law Foundation of British Columbia.
It makes 11 recommendations to government, social service organizations and their clients on how to proceed on the proposed project.
Among them, the study asks the province to refer the database to the B.C. Supreme Court to determine whether it violates privacy protections under the Constitution. It also suggests the province should immediately begin public consultations and carry out a legally required privacy-impact assessment.
An official with the B.C. Ministry of Housing and Social Development said staff are reviewing the groups' recommendations and hope to meet with its representatives.
The ministry is also working with the province's Privacy Commissioner, who has begun the assessment, a spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Protecting the privacy of people's personal information is a top priority, he said.
"We are working towards an increased level of protection … that will be in full compliance with B.C.'s information security policies, which are among the most stringent in the world."
The project also has plans to include an auditing feature that should help determine who is accessing the information, the spokesman said.
Mr. Evans said one of the group's main concerns is that if people who need social services - such as addiction counselling or public housing - start fearing their private details will be shared with the government, they may withhold crucial information.
"The people who are supposed to deliver services, (their) relationship changes. It's now not one of 'I'm here to help you, what you say will be held in confidence,' " Mr. Evans said. "It becomes 'I'm going to give all the information you're going to give me to the government.' " Another concern is that officials who run the social service organizations could become liable if the information is used inappropriately after it leaves their offices and enters the database.
While better ways of managing data are necessary, the information must remain within the citizen's control, said Tim Agg of PLEA Community Services Society of BC, an organization that made its records available to researchers for the study.
"Who ought to be entitled to see it, who ought to be entitled to have it shared, under what circumstances, under what controls, for what purposes -there remain pretty significant outstanding questions," he said.
It's not the first time the province has been questioned on its ability to maintain adequate privacy controls.
The B.C. Privacy Commissioner and Auditor General criticized the province's largest health authority over the way it handles computerized patient health records in recent months.
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