Library and Archives Canada deal with Ancestry.ca leaves personal information vulnerable

Federal government releases a gold mine of personal data
Comments5

In 1995, Bruce Phillips, Canada’s privacy commissioner, dropped a minor bombshell in his annual report to Parliament: thousands of Canadians would begin losing their rights that year under the Privacy Act as the federal government started downsizing and privatizing.

Phillips, commissioner from 1991 to 2000, warned that personal information previously collected by the government would soon be removed from the protection of the act and end up in the hands of private companies.

But Parliament wasn’t listening.

“This means that innumerable bits of personal data no longer will have to be managed in accordance with fair information practices,” Phillips further cautioned. “The subjects of all this information will have no legal right of access to the information and no legal control over what information is collected about them, how it may be used, disclosed or otherwise disposed of…This constitutes nothing less than a privacy disaster…This consequence of privatization may have been entirely unintended; it can hardly have been unforeseen. And, regrettably, it was entirely preventable.”

If you thought the government was keen on protecting the privacy rights of its citizens 17 years after that dressing down, you might be in for a surprise.

In October last year, Ancestry.ca, a subsidiary of Ancestry.com, one of the world’s largest online genealogy services, announced its release of its largest Canadian database to date: 80 million voter registrations, including names, addresses, occupations, and electoral districts of anyone who was registered to vote in Canada between 1935 and 1980. The 45-year database is a gold mine of personal information stretching across 15 Canadian federal elections.

Because Elections Canada turned over voter-registration records to Library and Archives Canada for “archival and research purposes”, and because Section 69 of the Privacy Act specifically excludes LAC from the Privacy Act, anyone who was old enough to vote in 1980 and who still lives at the same address might find their personal privacy in peril.

In November 2008, LAC inked a deal with Ancestry.ca to digitize millions of Canadian archival records. Ancestry.ca now offers paid access to more than 410 million Canadian names in records, including such sources as: U.S.-Canada border crossings (1895 to 1956), Canadian passenger lists (1865 to 1935), Quebec vital records (1621 to 1967), Census of Canada records (1851, 1891, 1906, 1911, 1916), and Ontario and B.C. vital records.

As part of the deal, libraries across Canada can buy an Ancestry.ca institutional membership and offer free, in situ access—but not online from home. You have to physically be in a library to access Ancestry.ca-held records without charge.

In a release at the time, Ancestry.ca senior vice president Josh Hanna called the deal with LAC “a win-win relationship”. Although LAC assured the public that it will eventually offer the voter-registration records online for free, it hasn’t said when that will happen and it remains mum about the financial details of the Ancestry contract.

LAC did not respond to emailed and phoned interview requests from the Georgia Straight.

In the U.S., access to Ancestry.com databases has been used in widespread identity-theft operations. As a result of identity theft and false estate claims, Ancestry.com recently altered its access policy to its vast U.S. Social Security death-registry database. The U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics reported that 8.6 million Americans over the age of 12 were victims of identity theft in 2010.

In Canada, where it has only been illegal since 2010 to steal someone’s identity for a criminal purpose, the government’s Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre collects identity-fraud statistics and reports that in 2009, there were 11,095 identity-theft victims, but it warns that many instances of identity theft and fraud go unreported.

But LAC isn’t the only public body partnering with your personal information. On September 4, 2012, the B.C. Archives and the Royal B.C. Museum announced the online release of 700,000 birth, death, and marriage records that can be searched for free online. By the end of 2012, they expected to have released a million records.

According to Kathryn Bridge, the Royal B.C. Museum’s manager of centralized access, the upload of more than 700,000 scanned and indexed documents in the first few months of test operations was unique in Canada. “No other province in Canada has made this much rich data available online,” Bridge said in a November 28 release.

In releasing the documents, B.C.’s Vital Statistics Agency and B.C. Archives partnered with FamilySearch International, a Utah-based organization affiliated with the Mormon Church and the largest genealogy service in the world. FamilySearch digitized records and archives staff provided indexing.

Museum spokesperson Sue Stackhouse told the Straight: “The online search was part of a wider online search project initialed by the RBCM as a way of making the museum and archives collection more accessible.” In reply to a question about any financial details regarding the partnership, Stackhouse said the Straight would have to submit a freedom-of-information request.

B.C.’s record release include birth records (1854 to 1903), deaths (1872 to 1991), and marriage records (1872 to 1936). In B.C., birth records can be released after 120 years, death records after only 20 years, and marriage records after 75 years. But the release of death records may have unanticipated consequences, as those documents are very detailed, giving birth information, relatives’ names, and specific diseases or events, such as cause of death. The museum acknowledged that databases could be used to establish medical histories.

“The archives did not have specific concerns regarding online release of death records; as the time lag from creation of death certificate to public release has not changed at all, death records have long been available after 20 years,” Stackhouse said.

Comments (5) Add New Comment
Richard Carruthers-Zurowski
For the Canadian content this article is unnecessarily alarmist. Of the 2 major databases discussed: the Dominion Voters' List and the B.C. BMD registration indexes (not the certificates), the first does not include birth dates or relationships. Moreover, the indexing is so bad an added layer of 'privacy' is provided to keep even legitimate researchers from finding what they want. As for the B.C. Vital Records (BMD) Indexes, ancestry only provides the Indexes. It's the LDS Church's website that gives the fuller details of what the certificates contain (though not everything, such as the cause of death for the only recent records, i.e. deaths between 1870 and 1991). Ontario records are much more accessible on ancestry.ca or .com than B.C. ones. You can access them online while the actual certificates for B.C. vitals can be obtained by visiting the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library's Art and History floor downtown and reading the appropriate microfilmed original.

By the way, in general Canadian vital records (kept provincially) are much harder to access on average, than, say, British ones (English and Welsh at any rate). The Indexes of BMD from 1837 to 2005 are available on ancestry.ca. In theory, you can order up anyone's birth, marriage, or death certificate if you wish, providing you're willing to pay. Scottish Vitals are slightly more restricted along B.C. lines for births (over a hundred years old versus B.C.'s 120), but the website Scotland's People provides convenient accessibility to earlier data.

Probably the most revealing birth indexes available are, however, those for the U.S. State of California which give exact date and county of birth and mother's maiden name as well as the individual's full given names and surnames. This must be useful to fraudsters as well as legitimate researchers. No doubt it gives pain to California-born Hollywood actors and hopefuls to have their proper dob revealed. The California marriage and death indexes are also quite revealing.

The U.S. Social Security Death Index is useful, though I can see how it could be used for fraud. Hmm, sound familiar? A parallel blind spot as with U.S. Gun laws maybe?

Richard Carruthers-Zurowski, professional genealogist, Vancouver, British Columbia
B.A. (Hons, Modern History) & M.A. (Oxford)
oxfordgenealogyheraldryhistory@gmail.com
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Ann ten Cate
I would just like to correct the statement by Mr. Carruthers-Zurowski about the B.C. birth, marriages and death records available through the Royal B.C. Museum and Archives. He has implied that the certificates are not available online, but in fact the actual original registration forms (which are far more detailed than a certificate and contain cause of death, parents names etc.) are available and can be viewed and printed without charge from the Museum website. As the original article stated, about 700,000 images are currently available.
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Sue France
I was looking for the jpg to go with one of the records on the bc site and it wasn't there. Are records scanned in any particular order? Will more records from past years be added as time goes on ( i.e. from a death in 1989)?
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erricmartin
Personal information is the asset of a person there are many things of life a man/women don't want to share with any one but when identity breach hit the account most valuable asset just stolen in few mints. Many organizations are trying to educate people that how they can protect their identity but still there is lot of work needs to be do. Identities of many dead people are also using by identity thief for illegal purposes.
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Arthur Irving
It would seem that the Government of Canada is not only selling the country bit by bit; but our rights to privacies bit by bit meaning computer bits. this would never have ever been considered before the People who run for office in Canada began taking money to change laws and protecting everyone but the people of this great land. It is apparent that we are still the only civilized country not to have a revolution after separation from England for taxes and the unlawful usage of the people's monies and their rights. In the Olden days we had people who stood up for their rights. Now we have a government which simply wants money top feed the pockets of themselves and their friends. I have never seen so many big business grants and or forgivable loans. to everyone but the general Public. they encourage everyone to be placed into great debt at a young age and keep them so for most of their lives. Maybe the Ancestors of the now should be thinking of fixing the government faults and ousting all the crooked Government officials and getting back to basics where the People once again run this country.
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