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Canadian Government's Mega Database Doesn't Reveal Sexual Orientation - Yet

AN "extraordinarily detailed database" housed within the federal government which serves as a de facto citizen profile was revealed yesterday by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Bruce Phillips, in presenting his 1999-2000 Annual Report to Parliament on the state of personal privacy in Canada, said Canadians should be concerned.

"As many as 2,000 pieces of information about each of more than 30 million Canadians are in the custody of Human Resources Development Canada," said the Commissioner in a statement.

The data are collectively known as the Longitudinal Labour Force File.  "This is an enormous database with enormous amounts of information about each one of us," he exclaimed.

"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," Mr. Phillips told the press following the tabling of the report.

The data are drawn from a wide variety of government sources - including income tax records - according to Canada's chief privacy watchdog, and are maintained for possible "research" purposes.  Other sources of the data include child tax benefit files, provincial and municipal welfare files, federal jobs, job training and employment programs and services, employment insurance files and the social insurance number master file.

Collection of this information began about 15 years ago by the Unemployment Insurance administration in order to assess the effectiveness of that program.

Sounding the alarm in the information age, the Commissioner stated:  "Successive Privacy Commissioners have assured Canadians that there was no single federal government file, or profile about them.  We were wrong - or not right enough for comfort."

"I said years ago, the fear is not Big Brother, it's thousands of little brothers, all of whom have" the technology and ability to follow Canadians' personal lives, Mr. Phillips said.

"But there is a Big Brother factor as well, and I think the Longitudinal Labour Force File is an example of the kind of thing that modern technology makes possible.  We should know about it.  We should know they're doing it and they should have to do it under very tightly written legal restraints about the usage of that information," he continued.

The federal 'money-going-out' ministry defended its collection and use of the data yesterday.

"We have taken [Mr. Phillips'] concerns seriously," Bob Wilson, HRDC's director-general of evaluation and data development, told the press.  "We're not unmindful of the privacy concerns surrounding the database," he added.

An individual's identity is electronically masked, he said, and only available to a handful of Ministry officials through special technology.  He acknowledged, however, that the data in masked form is sometimes given to parties in the private sector for research.

"We're concerned about maintaining the privacy of individuals and we've done a large number of things to protect that," Mr. Wilson said.  "We, perhaps not wisely, but nevertheless, have relied on the fact that we've been doing this for 15 years and never had a problem with it, never had even a hint of a [security] breach."

Devil's in the details - sexual orientation, rights at law, and data collection

The Longitudinal Labour Force File doesn't reveal if a Canadian is gay or lesbian - yet.

"I don't believe there's any information on sexual orientation from those [data] sources," Brian Foran, the Director of Issues Management with the Privacy Commissioner of Canada's Office, told

Mr. Foran was referring to income tax returns and other government processes and programs from which the data in the File are compiled.

However, with recent advances in equality for gay and lesbian people at both the provincial and federal levels of law, that information may come to be collected and directed to each Canadian's mega-file.  In particular, the filing of same sex linked income tax returns with 'Common Law' checked for marital status, and the possible inclusion of a sexual orientation question in the next census, would generate data revealing that one is gay or lesbian.

But at present Mr. Foran said the issue of orientation being revealed wasn't apparent in the Office of the Commissioner's analysis of the mega database.  He cautioned, however, that his response was not subsequent to a comprehensive review of the data or its sources.

The Privacy Commissioner summed up his Office's findings by saying:  "I don't question that [HRDC] had, and they have, good reasons for doing this and that it is useful information in terms of improving the quality of their programs.  I am not suggesting either that they've done anything unlawful here.  They are complying with the strict letter of the law as we understand it.

"But there are serious problems here," he concluded.