Why Albertans should care about access to information and protection of privacy legislation

By Linda McKay-Panos

Recent events in the United Kingdom regarding access to people’s private voicemail and allegations that the police withheld information about the subsequent investigation have really concerned many people (see London police chief quits in phone-hacking scandal).

What protections do Albertans have from similar offensive activities?

While the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not directly state that Canadians have a right of access to information or to privacy protection, some of our common law cases have indicated that the Charter may be interpreted as supporting these rights.

In addition, there is legislation across the country dealing with access to information and protection of privacy. In Alberta, we have three such pieces of legislation. They are: Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act; Personal Information Protection Act and the Health Information Protection Act. These are available on the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s Website: http://www.oipc.ab.ca/pages/home/default.aspx

However, our potential protection is only as good as the applicable freedom of information and protection of privacy legislation and its enforcement.

There are three principal reasons why access to government (which includes municipalities, universities, police and hospitals) held information is important to Albertans.

First, as citizens, we have a right of access to information.

Second, the general accountability of the government is enhanced when we have access to government-held information.

Finally, having access to government information can provide a group or individual with the ability to become influential in government policy-making, so that we can use the influence to positively change government policies and practices.

Of course, there are some limitations on access to information (although arguably we have too many legislated exceptions in Alberta).

One important limitation to access to information is protection of personal privacy. Privacy protection includes the protection of our personal information, the protection of our physical privacy, freedom from private or government surveillance, the privacy of our surroundings and the right not to have our personality stolen.

Why is protecting privacy important?

Privacy is essential in a democracy. The right to privacy:

  • allows us to be free from interference from the government and others,
  • ensures that we can vote without others knowing for whom we voted,
  • allows us to be candid with our lawyers and our doctors,
  • is necessary in order to protect rights such as the right to life, liberty and security of the person,
  • permits us to feel safe in our homes, free from surveillance, and
  • respects our autonomy.

What can we do to ensure that the rights of access to information and protection of privacy are protected well in Alberta?

We need to become aware of the activities and cases involving the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Commissioner, including his or her powers and the procedures under the legislation for making a complaint and resolving it.

The legislation is reviewed on a fairly regular basis. It is important to become aware of the nature of the review, the recommendations for changes to the law that are made and whether they are implemented. (See: http://www.servicealberta.ca/foip/legislation/foip-act-review.cfm.)  You may even choose to make a submission once you become aware of the issues.

While these two rights (access to information and protection of privacy) may seem somewhat abstract to Albertans, we have seen the practical implications of violations of BOTH of them in the UK.

Many of us were deeply offended by what occurred in the UK and would be horrified if the same thing happened here. Thus, Albertans need to become aware of our rights and to ensure that they are respected.

Linda McKay-Panos is on the Board of Directors of the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association. www.rmcla.ca

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