Canada’s next privacy watchdog is already under fire, with privacy experts calling the appointment “indefensible” at a time when government is pushing through new laws with provisions that critics say threaten Canadians’ privacy rights.
Last week’s nomination of Daniel Therrien – a lawyer who has spent his entire 33-year career in government – as Canada’s next Privacy Commissioner has drawn criticism from a former federal commissioner, major civil liberties groups, privacy experts and academics.
New details, meanwhile, of his selection are emerging. Sources tell The Globe and Mail that Mr. Therrien was picked by Treasury Board President Tony Clement from a two-person shortlist, and that the candidates favoured by many in Canada’s privacy community – each respected for their work as commissioners already – did not make the final shortlist.
Mr. Therrien is currently the assistant deputy attorney-general for public safety, a position that makes him closely familiar with government data-monitoring programs, such as cross-border data sharing, that are widely criticized by privacy advocates as being too invasive.
If approved by Parliament as Commissioner, Mr. Therrien will be tasked with picking apart those very programs, sparring with government and doing so without experience working either as a commissioner or in a commissioner’s office.
Mr. Therrien is “accustomed to approaching privacy issues from a wholly opposite perspective,” says a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper from more than two dozen academics, privacy advocates and groups, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. The letter calls the appointment “indefensible.”
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said Mr. Therrien is too close to government for the job while Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau backs the nomination.
Former privacy commissioner George Radwanski has said it was “like putting a fox in charge of chicken security at the henhouse.” Ken Rubin, an Ottawa researcher and longtime access to information advocate, doesn't support the nomination. "We don't need another government spokesman," he said.
Mr. Therrien has declined comment until a committee appearance scheduled for Tuesday.
The Conservative government has said Mr. Therrien was selected after “a rigorous process" and was the best candidate. The Globe and Mail has learned the process, led by Boyden Global Executive Search, came up with a list of six final candidates, all of them bilingual. A seven-member committee, made up mostly of government officials, took two months to consider the list, conducting interviews, sources said.
The committee narrowed the list to two and Mr. Clement then interviewed those two candidates, picking Mr. Therrien, sources say. Mr. Clement ultimately “decided on someone he was comfortable recommending to the Prime Minister,” one source familiar with the selection process said. Mr. Harper approved and announced the pick last Wednesday.
Interim Commissioner Chantal Bernier, who has done the job since former commissioner Jennifer Stoddart retired , was among the six finalists, as was B.C. Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, sources say, and were seen as frontrunners. “For many in the privacy community, those were the two names that were the most obvious ones,” one source said.
Neither, however, made the final two-person list, sources say. “It’s interesting that, rather than going for something safe, the government made a choice that makes a statement” by antagonizing privacy experts, another source familiar with the selection process said.
The second candidate on the final shortlist is said to have had experience working in a commissioner’s office, like Ms. Denham and Ms. Bernier. Ms. Stoddart served as chair of Quebec’s access-to-information commission before being appointed in 2003. Mr. Therrien does not have commissioner experience.
The selection committee was impressed by Mr. Therrien’s focus on finding “the balance between X and Y,” one source said. He’ll now be tasked with balancing privacy rights against security operations that inherently threaten them, as government prepares to pass new laws that critics say infringe on privacy rights.
Ms. Bernier and Ms. Denham declined comment. Ms. Bernier’s final day as interim commissioner is Monday, with Mr. Therrien still needing to be approved by Parliament. If he is, he’ll be handed a seven-year term.