A Year like no other: Championing access and privacy in times of uncertainty

Jun 24 2021

Today I was honoured to table my first annual report in the Ontario Legislature. It contains an overview of the significant developments that shaped our efforts in 2020, along with notable activities and initiatives that marked an unprecedented year.

If anything, the uncertainty of the past year has emphasized the vital role that public institutions play in protecting people from danger, saving lives, and speaking truth based on scientific evidence. In turbulent waters, when feeling scared and vulnerable, citizens need to rely on their governments to steady the ship. They need to trust that even as the storm rages, their governments will do what’s right by them. This means not only keeping them safe, but doing so in a manner that is fair, transparent, responsible, and accountable.

A common refrain throughout the past year has been a recognition that privacy rights are not absolute and allow for exceptional measures in times of emergency. Timely sharing of data with and between institutions can be critical in helping curb the spread of COVID-19, understand its pathology, and treat it in a timely way. However, any privacy infringements must be grounded in lawful authority, and even then — the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information should be as minimal as possible; necessary and effective for ensuring protection; proportional to the risks and attendant benefits; and time-limited for only as long as the emergency persists.

A second common refrain throughout 2020 was the critical need for transparency. Information about COVID-19 outbreaks was instrumental for tracking the spread of the virus, particularly among the most vulnerable and marginalized communities. Such information also helped enhance and evolve common understanding of the types of risk factors people should guard against. Throughout the year, our office encouraged public health officials to proactively release as much non-personal information as possible, such as numbers of infections per region, age and gender profile of infected individuals, and other demographic data in aggregate form, including types, and even names, of businesses and institutions in certain cases.

A third common theme of last year has been to remind public institutions that access to information rights and obligations are not suspended, even during times of emergency. In fact, access to information is more critical than ever, especially when peoples’ lives and livelihood are at stake. It is now — not years from now when history books will be published — that the public needs to understand the decisions and actions that are being taken on their behalf and hold institutions to account for them. Information breeds the level of trust needed for people to follow public health guidance. Conversely, secrecy spawns skepticism that only leads to cynicism and non-adherence.

Despite the operational challenges of an unprecedented year, I am happy to report that Ontario’s public institutions continued to work hard to meet their obligations throughout 2020. Other than a couple of instances early on when institutions had to be gently reminded that they cannot simply close their FOIP offices ‘until further notice’, the vast majority of public institutions found ways of resuming virtual operations fairly quickly.

Time compliance rates for provincial and municipal institutions dipped only slightly by around 8 per cent, while the health sector maintained an impressive 96 per cent. This is an especially striking accomplishment given the significant pressures on the health sector during the pandemic, and the 25 per cent increase in requests for access to, and correction of, personal health information.

Ontario’s child and family services sector also rose to the challenges of an extraordinary year. With 2020 being the first year children’s aid societies became subject to the access and privacy provisions of Part X of the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, they managed to complete nearly three-quarters of the 7,037 access requests they received within the 30-day time limit.

For the IPC’s part, even though our physical office was closed, our virtual office remained open, and we continued to provide advice to stakeholders and services to the public. In 2020, we resolved 1,136 access appeals, more than 200 privacy complaints, and over 600 health privacy files. While we accumulated a small backlog in the early months as we were transitioning to work-from-home arrangements for all our staff, we have taken the necessary measures in hand to reduce this backlog in 2021.

While 2020 was a year of turmoil and change, there are signs of hope on the horizon as more and more of us get vaccinated and the province begins to reopen. However, even after the worst of the pandemic will finally be behind us, its effects will continue to shape our world far into the future. Already, the accelerated digitization of government services brought on by COVID-19, including digital identity initiatives and transformative changes to health care delivery models, have significantly altered the way we access public services.

In the year ahead, all of us here at the IPC stand ready and committed to listen and work together with various stakeholders to continue to champion access and privacy rights now, and throughout whatever the “new normal” may bring.

I wish to thank my predecessor, Commissioner Brian Beamish, for his outstanding leadership during the first half of 2020, and all of the highly talented and dedicated IPC staff who supported both Brian and me in the service of all Ontarians throughout this annus horribilis.

Patricia

This post is also available in: French