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.