The federal government is selective with its protection of privacy

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It is now almost a pattern: every time we, as a human rights organization or activist, write to government agencies inquiring about cases of Canadians detained abroad or of Canadians subject to abuse or possible discrimination, the governmental response will certainly somehow contain the issue of "privacy."

"Privacy concerns" have been used as a powerful pretext for inaction or silence and this should be challenged and denounced.

Similarly, another argument often invoked by the government for not providing us with answers is the "national security" argument. As scary and intimidating this argument sounds, it turns out to be murky and hollow. Indeed, we can never know for sure if the concern of "national security" is real or simply a good pretext benefiting the political interests of the government rather than the public interest.

Unfortunately, this apparent obsession with privacy seems to be very selective. In fact, we have noticed that when individual cases would benefit from the disclosure of information to activists and groups, the government is adamant about privacy. On the other side, when information about citizens is threatened or shared with government agencies without knowledge or consent, the government doesn't seem to care much or express outrage.

This behaviour is in total contradiction with what is written in the Privacy Act. Indeed, section 8(m) of the Privacy Act allows for the release of information in some situations:

"Section 8(2) Subject to any other Act of Parliament, personal information under the control of a government institution may be disclosed:
(m) for any purpose where, in the opinion of the head of the institution,
(i) the public interest in disclosure clearly outweighs any invasion of privacy that could result from the disclosure, or
(ii) disclosure would clearly benefit the individual to whom the information relates."

But those provisions seem to be falling on deaf government ears.

Meanwhile it was recently reported that federal government departments breached the privacy of more than 45,000 Canadians in 2015 and only limited numbers of those breaches were ever reported to Daniel Therrien, Canada's Privacy Commissioner (OPC).

For instance, it is worth noting that the Canada Revenue Agency, one of the agencies with the most reported breaches (3,868) affecting 13,665 individuals, has reported among the lowest number of breaches to OPC.

It isn't clear if this huge number of breaches is a direct consequence of the implementation of the controversial information-sharing powers included in Bill C-51 (Anti-terrorism Act 2015). However, we recently learned from media reports that at least four agencies: Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and a fourth agency whose name has been redacted, have used the information-sharing provisions. It should be remembered that C-51 expends the list of agencies benefiting from the "generous" sharing of information to 17.

These double standards regarding privacy issues are also very well illustrated by the troubling examples of kids who are found on the "no-fly" list. The government, despite all their recent promises in the media about will dealing with the matter, never told us how the names of these Canadians children came to be on that list. Is it possible that their names were racially profiled and thus shared with the U.S. "no-fly" list? Is Transport Canada sharing these names with Air Canada or other airline carriers? If this is the case, why have no safeguards been taken into account?

There are many crucial questions that should be taken seriously. It is time for the government to stop its erratic attitude toward "privacy" and come clean about it.

This column was first published in the Huffington Post.

Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and recently, a novel about Muslim women, Mirrors and Mirages. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog

Photo: Christian Eager/flickr

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