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Bad actors who violate privacy rules should face fines: B.C. privacy commissioner

Vancouver Sun logo Vancouver Sun 2021-02-24 Katie DeRosa
a man wearing a suit and tie: Information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy. © Provided by Vancouver Sun Information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy.

B.C.’s current privacy legislation is “toothless”, the province’s privacy watchdog said Tuesday, as he called for the power to lay fines against companies that wilfully violate people’s privacy.

Information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy told a legislative committee Tuesday that not only does the province’s privacy legislation need “urgent reform” to respond to technological advancements such as artificial intelligence, facial recognition and data collection by social-media giants, it also must be strengthened to include monetary penalties for bad actors.

The Personal Information and Protection Act “is in many respects toothless because the most I can do to sanction even a serious wilful violation of our legislation is to order an organization to do what it should have done in the first place which is fulfil its legal duty,” McEvoy told the B.C. committee reviewing the act.

McEvoy said his office always prioritizes education, “but it is clear there are bad actors out there who do not respect their duty to uphold the legal boundaries and should therefore face monetary sanction.”

Earlier this month, a joint investigation by the federal privacy commissioner and the privacy commissioners of B.C., Quebec and Alberta found that the Technology company Clearview AI violated the privacy rights of Canadians when it scraped billions of images of people from across the internet, which represented a mass surveillance.

The American company’s technology allowed law enforcement and commercial groups to match photos of unknown people against the company’s databank of more than three billion images, including of Canadians and children, for investigative purposes. The RCMP was a client of the company but its contract was suspended after federal privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien announced the privacy probe last year.

McEvoy said the federal government’s proposed Bill C-11 to enact the Consumer Privacy Protection Act — which, if passed, will update Canada’s digital privacy laws — will give Canada’s federal privacy commissioner the power to make compliance orders.

However, McEvoy is critical that a separate administrative committee called the Data Protection Tribunal would have the power to lay fines for breaking privacy legislation instead of the privacy commissioner’s office.

B.C.’s privacy legislation, drafted in 2003, requires “urgent reform”, McEvoy said, to address new technological advances including AI, data analytics, facial recognition and social media.

Updated legislation should also require organizations to notify people and the privacy commissioner as soon as there’s a privacy breach that meets a certain threshold of risk-of-harm, McEvoy said. In this area, B.C. falls behind Canadian privacy laws, as well as measures in the European Union, the U.K. and all 50 U.S. states, he said.

Andrew Wilkinson, former Liberal party leader and MLA for Vancouver-Quilchena, asked whether B.C. is jumping the gun by reforming privacy legislation before Bill C-11 is passed, especially if it creates confusion for companies trying to abide by privacy rules.

McEvoy dismissed that concern and said B.C. has the chance to be a leader in updating its privacy legislation, especially in response to new digital privacy laws in the European Union.

— With files from Tiffany Crawford


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