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B.C.’s privacy commissioner to take job as Britain’s next watchdog

B.C.'s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, is leaving for a position in the United Kingdom.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press Images

British Columbia's Information and Privacy Commissioner, who often butts heads with the provincial government, most recently in a scandal involving deleted e-mails, will not be seeking reappointment.

Elizabeth Denham has been offered a new position as Britain's next Information Commissioner, the country's Culture Secretary John Whittingdale said Tuesday. She will begin her five-year term this summer, subject to a review by a parliamentary committee.

Ms. Denham, whose term as B.C. watchdog ends July 6, said she is honoured to be tapped for the position.

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"I believe the rapid pace of technological change we face will continue to accelerate and present challenges to information rights," she said in a statement. "We must ensure access to information while maintaining high standards of data protection. The Information Commissioner's Office has a global reputation for practical, innovative and responsive regulation. I look forward to contributing to this work."

In a letter delivered to Finance Minister and Government House Leader Mike de Jong on Tuesday, Ms. Denham said she leaves "knowing that government's awareness of the importance of privacy and security of personal information, the need for good record keeping of government decisions and the public's right to know have been enhanced" during her tenure.

Ms. Denham has served as B.C.'s information and privacy watchdog since May of 2010, leading numerous high-profile investigations. They include a scathing October, 2015 report that concluded Premier Christy Clark's government routinely thwarted freedom-of-information requests through tactics such as triple-deleting e-mails.

For his role in the triple-delete scandal, George Gretes, a former assistant to Transportation Minister Todd Stone, was charged earlier this month with two counts of willfully making false statements to mislead, or attempt to mislead, under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Before a legislature committee last week, Ms. Denham reiterated the need to legislate a duty to document, as the government's failure to keep adequate records risks diminished accountability, reduced openness and transparency and a loss of public confidence.

"I've said that the duty to document … is not to create more records or more work," she said. "Rather, it's to ensure that public bodies focus on creating the right records to document their business activities and key decisions, whether they occur via e-mail, via briefing note or through minutes of a meeting. And, of course, policies and training and commitment are really important parts of that implementation, but they must flow from legislation to be effective and to be enforceable."

Ms. Denham also underscored the importance of having independent oversight regarding any unauthorized destruction of records by the B.C. government: "Any potential for conflict, or even the appearance of a conflict, on the part of those assessing whether records have been improperly destroyed would erode public confidence in this process."

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Prior to her appointment in B.C., Ms. Denham served as assistant privacy commissioner of Canada from 2007 to 2010 and, before that, the director of compliance in the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta from 2003 to 2007.

In 2009, as assistant privacy commissioner of Canada, Ms. Denham led an investigation into the privacy practices of Facebook. It was the first time a data-protection regulator had laid bare the business model of the social-networking site – detailing the amount of data third-party applications could scrape from users and the fact Facebook kept information from even deleted accounts indefinitely – and resulted in changes, enhancing controls and transparency.

The same year, her office consulted with Google on its Street View feature, which resulted in having faces and licence plates blurred out before the feature became available in Canada.

Ms. Denham will replace Christopher Graham, who has been Britain's Information Commissioner since June, 2009.

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