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The census and civil liberties: Interview with Micheal Vonn

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Micheal Vonn is the Policy Director with the BC Civil Liberties Association.  She will be making a submission to the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology on the census.

Q.  What is the BC Civil Liberties Association's position on the census issue?

The Association does not have a position on the census issue per se, but we are very concerned about the likely alternatives to a mandatory long-form census.  The alternative isn't being spelled out in any detail, but the discussion keeps revolving around some form of voluntary survey coupled with recourse to "administrative" and other "existing" forms of data.  We have to assume this means pulling personal information from public and private sector databases.  
Q.  What are your specific concerns around privacy issues related to the census?

The collection of comprehensive personal information is always a privacy concern.  That said, as the Federal Privacy Commissioner has noted, Statistics Canada has an excellent record in terms of privacy protection. In fact, the census is not even on the list of serious and urgent privacy concerns in Canada, which includes FINTRAC (Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis), expansion of police surveillance of telecommunications ("lawful access"), airport body scanners, the Canadian no-fly list, laptop searches by the Canadian Border Services Agency, disclosure of Canadian passenger data to foreign governments and centralized electronic health records. For starters. 

Q.  Have there been issues related to the census before, from a civil liberties perspective?

The Association has had very few privacy complaints about the census and those focused mainly on the involvement of Lockheed Martin and potential disclosures to the U.S. through the U.S.A. Patriot Act, not on the nature of the census per se.  

Q. What is your position related to the system of fines and penalties that was in place previously on the mandatory census?

As a civil liberties organization we are concerned about the severity of the penalties and would welcome reform in that area.  

Q. How does Canada compare to other countries in terms of its data collection for the census?

We haven't done any of our own research on this subject, but we understand from media reports that some European countries have brought in alternatives to a census and that the results, in terms of the integrity of the data, have been decidedly mixed.   

Q. Are there concerns about data mining?

Absolutely. In fact, you could argue that the federal and provincial governments have for years now been quietly reorienting all government services to facilitate data mining. The federal government and many provincial governments have been busily creating a privacy Chernobyl in-waiting with their relentless push for database "interoperability."

There are various buzz-terms for this, like "joined-up government" and "horizontal government".  The big idea is that data systems are supposed to be able to "talk" to each other, which is supposed to be convenient and efficient. There are good justifications and not good justifications for data-sharing, but it's obvious that system-wide integration is effectively the architecture for comprehensive citizen dossiers and a surveillance state. This is exactly what we've seen going on in the U.K. over the last decade.  It seems likely that the unstated alternative to the (supposedly) 'costly' census is to (supposedly) cost-effectively plug into the ever-more connected data networks that contain our sensitive personal information. 

Q. What is your message to Tony Clement and the Conservative caucus?

Privacy is an inherently comparative analysis.  What are we getting for what we are giving up?  Is the exchange proportionate? Is there a less privacy-intrusive way to achieve the same goal?  We can't fairly assess privacy issues relating to the census until the government is transparent about what is being planned in the alternative.  

And while we are having this very interesting public discussion about privacy, could you please apply this much-appreciated privacy focus where it is desperately needed (see above list: "FINTRAC, CBSA, lawful access, etc."). 

Q. Anything else?  

One of the good things about the census that nobody ever mentions is that it is transparent.  We might argue that the government has no business inquiring into issue X, Y, or Z, even for statistical purposes, but we do know what information is being collected. If we don't like it, we can complain, write our MP, write letters to the editor, etc. One of the reasons that 'government by database' is so dangerous to democracy is that data collection becomes indirect and virtually invisible.  There is a critical loss of accountability when our data trails supplant us in our interactions with government.   

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