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Anna Alger is photographed in her rental apartment in Vancouver on March 22, 2018.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

University of B.C. undergrad Anna Alger and her friend both handed over their Social Insurance Numbers last spring while trying to get an apartment in Vancouver’s desirable South Granville neighbourhood, but they lost the unit because they couldn’t supply immediate proof that their parents’ savings plans were set up to cover their rent.

“We didn’t have a [Registered Education Savings Plans] statement that we could just bring up that showed we had tens of thousands of dollars,” Ms. Alger says, noting her dad in Calgary was unreachable that evening.

The landlord’s agent should only have asked for such sensitive information if a potential tenant failed to provide satisfactory references that proved their past ability to pay rent on time, according to a new report from British Columbia’s acting information and privacy commissioner.

Drew McArthur’s report, released on Thursday, detailed the systemic overcollection of personal data in the province’s rental sector, which represents about 30 per cent of all households in B.C. − 1.5 million people. But a near-zero vacancy rate across much of province means that landlords are taking advantage of a power imbalance to glean too much information from prospective renters.

Over the past couple of years, Mr. McArthur says his office has received daily calls from people complaining of their landlords’ invasive probing. Some of the most troubling included questions about a tenant’s immigration status; whether they were planning to get pregnant soon; and even requesting a copy of a child’s report cards. None of these tenants wanted to file an official complaint, he said, because they didn’t want to get kicked out of their units.

Mr. McArthur analyzed the residential tenancy applications of eight large rental management companies and five non-profit landlords, which represent close to half of the province’s estimated 500,000 units.

The most pervasive invasion of privacy appeared to be an insistence on consenting to a credit check, which 10 out of the 13 groups requested before even calling an applicants’ references, he said.

“They all said that they did a credit check – we’re telling them it’s inappropriate,” Mr. McArthur said in an interview on Thursday. “A reference can tell you if a tenant has paid the rent on time consistently over the previous tenancy and that’s the best predictor of future behaviour.

“A credit check doesn’t tell you whether or not a tenant pays on time; it might tell you other things that are not relevant to the tenancy.”

David Hutniak, chief executive officer of Landlord B.C., whose members in the rental housing industry own about 160,000 units across the province, disagreed that a basic credit check infringes upon a tenant’s privacy. If done correctly, he said, such checks don’t affect a person’s credit rating and they provide landlords with highly credible information succinctly summarized.

He praised the privacy commissioner for bridging a knowledge gap among landlords as to what is allowable under the existing legislation. But he opposed Mr. McArthur’s assertion that landlords cannot comb through a person’s social-media accounts.

“What we’re trying to do here is find balance and a fuller portfolio of information sources to make an intelligent decision,” he said.

Mr. McArthur says much of the information landlords require is protected by the Human Rights Code. Sometimes age can be required for rental properties restricted to people over 55, but he said landlords can only research a person’s digital footprint on public registries such as phonebook listings or through news stories.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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