Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's sometime golfing buddy Bruce Phillips is certainly bowing out, after a decade as Privacy Commissioner, on a high.
Not only has he just finished piloting a precedent-setting law to protect personal information and electronic documents assembled in the private sector (by insurance companies, for example,) through Parliament, but he forced Human Resources Development Canada to do a complete U-turn on what has become known as its Big Brother filing system in less than a week.
Not bad for an often garrulous old curmudgeon who spent most of his life as a journalist and television commentator before accepting a middling diplomatic post in Washington from former prime minister Brian Mulroney, followed by his appointment as Privacy Commissioner.
It was in this latter role that those curmudgeonly qualities he developed as a reporter (which frequently infuriated politicians and colleagues alike) have paid off handsomely. With stubborn persistence and astute lobbying, he has ragged the system into compliance -- raising the importance of protecting individual privacy many notches, even the privacy of citizens long since dead.
This was his final report as commissioner -- he was due to retire two years ago but persuaded Mr. Chrétien, whose membership he had sponsored at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club many years ago, he had unfinished work -- and how.
In it, he targeted HRDC's Longitudinal Labour Force File, a massive database on 33.7 million Canadians.
It included all the information from personal income-tax returns, details on child-tax benefits, immigration and visitors files, provincial and municipal welfare files, national training programs, and from grants programs such as the Canadian Job Strategy, plus all of the Employment Insurance administration including record of employment, etc., all cross-referenced to the master social-insurance-number file. It amounted to a citizen profile in all but name and gave anybody with access to it tremendous potential to do both good and evil.
Most Canadians didn't even know such an interlinked assembly of data existed, and they might have never learned about it. Mr. Phillips initially tried to negotiate with the department behind the scenes to dismantle it entirely or insert a lot of safeguards.
But the department refused, citing all the arguments that HRD Minister Jane Stewart initially tried to use to defend it. It says a lot that both the department and the Minister's first response was to justify the status quo rather than consider changes.
The department said it needed all of this data to analyze policies, to evaluate the effectiveness of its interventions and to improve service. It dismissed concerns that unauthorized people could get access, and it said it needed to keep all of the information over a long period of time to analyze the impact of business cycles.
It was only when Mr. Phillips couldn't budge the bureaucrats privately that he decided to make the situation public in his report. Then, of course, all hell broke loose, and since Ms. Stewart's public credibility is shot because of all of the other HRDC problems, a quick retreat was in order.
Mr. Phillips's report also demonstrated just how privacy information could go astray -- the Manitoba auto-insurance commission, for example, routinely got access to income-tax data. In another case, when a civil servant appealed a failure to get a promotion, a departmental human-resources official used medical records, not of the person appealing the decision, but of another witness who had been subpoenaed to testify on the appeal case, to defend the decision.
While Mr. Phillips leaves the job with stars on his epaulettes, there is a cost to the enhanced protection of personal information he has wrought. Part of the fuss about HRDC's mishandling of job-creation and regional-development grants, is that the department didn't know that companies receiving grants were about to go bankrupt, or that the same company had performed badly in previous circumstances, or that individuals were cycling on and off.
It reveals the department obviously didn't make much use of the Longitudinal Labour Force File. But if it had got its act together, it might have kept better track of projects and prevented abuses. Now some of those tools have been removed in deference to what is deemed a higher public good -- individual privacy. But we can't have it both ways.