Canadian Private Data File Causes Political Storm

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The federal Privacy Commissioner has revealed that the Canadian government is in possession of a massive computer database with intimate details about millions of Canadians, including income, employment, education and family status.


Existence of the file has triggered a stormy debate in parliament, with opposition legislators demanding that it be destroyed and thousands of Canadians asking for the information it contains on them.


"This is an enormous database with enormous amounts of information about each one of us," said Bruce Phillips, the nation's chief privacy watchdog, following the release of his annual report to Parliament on the state of personal privacy in Canada.


"Every one of us is covered in this file in one way or another. They have a complete record of you if you've had any contact anywhere with any [of a number of government departments and programs] ... which tells them how your life is progressing."


Some of the individual files in the Longitudinal Labor Force File, managed by Human Resources Development Canada, contain as many as 2,000 bits of information, said Phillips. The file, established about 15 years ago by Employment and Immigration Canada, contains detailed data on 33.7 million living and dead Canadians.


Anne McLellan, the Justice Minister, has promised to launch a review of federal privacy legislation this week.


After learning about the file's existence, opposition MPs in the House of Commons urged Canadians to protest by flooding HRDC with requests to access their individual files. At the same time, opposition MPs said during the daily question period that people should demand HRDC destroy the database before its contents are misused.


Diane Ablonczy, a Canadian Alliance MP from Calgary, told the Commons, "Canadians are outraged and alarmed to learn that the government has been keeping every detail of their lives on a computer disk."


Paul Crete, a Bloc Quebecois MP, asked Jane Stewart, the Human Resources Minister, "Will the minister, in front of everybody in this House, undertake to destroy this mega database that nobody in Canada wants?"


Stewart refused, saying it is needed to develop policies and does not break any laws.


Thousands of Canadians have sent HRDC a formal request for their personal information in the HRDC database since its existence came to light May 16. The requests are expected to continue to flood the department since the opposition parties and media outlets are urging people to take action.


In an interview on the Canadian Public Affairs Channel, Phillips said he has profound concerns about "the moral and philosophical ethics" of such a database.


No Canadian police authority -- including the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service -- has direct access to the file, Stewart told the Commons. She said they would require a court order to get information from the database.


The federal government has 30 days to respond.
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