Online tribunal evidence leaves citizens' data open to abuse

  • Canada
  • 08/25/2008
  • Globe and Mail

Intensely private information about Canadians is being indiscriminately spread through cyberspace because it appears in evidence or rulings issued by federal tribunals, federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said.

“The open-court rule – which is extremely historically important – has become distorted by the effect of massive search engines,” Ms. Stoddart told reporters at a meeting of the Canadian Bar Association. Documents containing all sorts of personal information now find themselves searchable worldwide.

“The open-court principle is extremely important, but it wasn’t meant for the age of Google.”

Ms. Stoddart said that the privacy concerns raised include the probability that prospective employers will search the Internet for information about a current or prospective employee, stumbling upon information that ought to remain private.

“They will go to social network sites; see what they can find about your past,” she said. Something may come up there that is irrelevant and doesn’t really need to be known by the world at large. Perhaps something about a family member … That really wasn’t the original purpose.

“There are tribunals, for example, that deal with people’s medical details,” she added.

Until recently, these records enjoyed the status of being “practicable obscurity,” Ms. Stoddart said. In other words, although they were publicly available, the fact that they had to be obtained or viewed in records offices at tribunals or court offices meant that very few people ever saw them.

Ms. Stoddart said her office will produce a series of recommendations to lessen or eliminate the problem in October, when it produces a report on the Privacy Act.

However, she said, the most obvious solution is to obscure the identities of individuals whose cases are the subject of evidence or rulings by tribunals – such as the Human Rights Tribunal.

“Secondly, write the opinions in such a way that you don’t put in unnecessary personal information – such as people’s addresses, their SIN numbers.”

In a speech on Sunday to the CBA, Ms. Stoddart noted that court rulings are full of similar, personal information. However, because her jurisdiction does not extend to the courts, she said the commission has no control over that aspect of the problem.

(Indeed, the Supreme Court of Canada is studying the problem of how to put vast amounts of court documents online without harming the privacy interests of litigants.)

While public dissemination of court rulings is undeniably a vital part of the justice system, Ms. Stoddart told the CBA, “I am not convinced that the broad public needs to know the names of individuals involved, or requires access to intimate personal details through decisions posted widely on the Internet.

“I don’t believe we would take away from the educational value of these decisions by replacing names with initials, for example.”