Privacy and Transparency in a Modern Government

In 2023, the IPC and the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) jointly issued a statement urging the Ontario government to develop effective safeguards governing the use of AI technologies within the public sector. The statement emphasized the pressing need for a robust, binding set of rules to harness AI benefits responsibly and sustainably. Without adequate governance protocols, the potential societal advancements offered by AI in health care, education, and public safety may be put at risk and public trust may falter. 

Together with the OHRC, we called upon the Ontario government to establish clear and binding guardrails around the public sector’s use of AI technologies that effectively address safety, privacy, accountability, transparency, and human rights. Our organizations also committed to working together to identify and promote guiding principles and leading practices associated with building a responsible, safe, and trustworthy AI framework that upholds human dignity as a fundamental value.

A national perspective on responsible innovation: Principles for generative AI

Our call for responsible AI governance was escalated at the national level, as we, along with our FPT counterparts, released comprehensive principles to guide the responsible and trustworthy deployment of generative AI technologies in Canada. The principles offer clear guidance on ethical, transparent, and accountable adoption and implementation of AI technologies, with particular focus on the unique challenges posed by generative AI. They are intended to help organizations build privacy protection into the design of generative AI tools and throughout their development, provision, adoption, and downstream use. The principles are devised to mitigate risk and promote the safe creation of AI technologies. Particular consideration is given to protecting vulnerable and historically marginalized groups, and ensuring generative content that could significantly impact individuals is transparently identified as having been created by a generative AI tool. 

This FPT initiative, among several others throughout 2023, reflects our proactive and collaborative approach to harmonizing privacy protection nationwide. This joint effort also reflects our collective commitment to ensuring that rapidly evolving technologies are harnessed to respect and protect the privacy of individuals and groups while still enabling innovation. 

New guidance on third party contracting

More and more, governments and public sector organizations rely on third party data processors in the private sector to leverage their capacity and expertise and gain efficiencies through economies of scale. Throughout 2023, the IPC worked on developing guidance for third party contracting practices that addresses the privacy and access concerns associated with outsourcing. We drew inspiration from past findings and decisions of our tribunal and consulted various organizations to get their practical input from the ground. 

Organizations can use this guidance, released in 2024, to better understand the privacy and access obligations that continue to rest with them, even when they contract out certain data processing functions to third party service providers. The guidance is intended to help organizations exercise due diligence and demonstrate the measures they have taken to ensure privacy and access issues are addressed throughout the procurement process from planning, tendering, vendor selection, negotiation, and agreement management.

Privacy of Ontario workers

Throughout 2023, Commissioner Kosseim continued to call on the government to address the serious gaps in statutory privacy protection for millions of Ontario workers. With the shift towards increased remote work arrangements, many employers have accelerated the use of monitoring technologies and AI as they seek new ways of tracking and evaluating employees performance. As a result, employees have never been under such intensive surveillance, creating undue stress and putting at risk their privacy in ways that may harm their productivity, creativity, autonomy, and mental well-being. 

Given the power imbalance in the workplace, employees often have little bargaining strength and cannot speak up against the adoption of overly invasive technologies. They may have little to no recourse against unfair employment decisions made about them based on inaccurate inferences about their conduct, attitude, or behaviour, particularly in non-unionized environments. Those who suffer most disproportionately tend to be individuals from marginalized and historically disadvantaged groups. For these important reasons, the IPC, in concert with our FPT colleagues, issued a joint resolution urging our respective governments to address any statutory gaps in their jurisdictions. The resolution also calls on all employers across the country to respect and protect employee rights to privacy and transparency and ensure the fair and appropriate use of electronic monitoring tools and AI technologies in the modern workplace. This call was reinforced by an international resolution on artificial intelligence and employment, co-sponsored by the IPC and unanimously adopted by the Global Privacy Assembly.

In early 2023, Commissioner Kosseim wrote to the ministers of Public and Business Service Delivery and Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development, expressing serious concern with the lack of statutory privacy protections for the vast majority of Ontario workers and calling for urgent attention if Ontario is to become a leading digital jurisdiction in which to live and work.  

In an age of electronic monitoring tools and artificial intelligence technologies, the privacy rights of employees, and indeed all Ontarians, must be more firmly entrenched in a comprehensive and coherent privacy regime, similar to what was proposed in the government’s 2021 white paper on Modernizing Privacy in Ontario. The IPC urges the government to resume its bold and ambitious efforts to address glaring gaps in statutory privacy protections in Ontario.

Celebrating democracy: Right to Know Week highlights

For Right to Know Week (RTKW) 2023, the IPC kicked things off with a commissioner’s blog and a podcast episode focused on breaking down barriers to access to information for women, A woman’s right to know: Closing the gender gap with access to information. Also, as part of RTKW celebrations, we launched a new suite of Interpretation Bulletins. These new resources are intended to codify our past interpretations of key provisions under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and its municipal counterpart, MFIPPA to promote a greater understanding of Ontario’s access and privacy laws and help prospective parties in an appeal better anticipate what to expect.

During the 2023 annual gathering in Québec City, the IPC joined Canada’s information commissioners and ombuds in signing a joint resolution calling for comprehensive updates to access to information laws in dire need of modernization. The resolution emphasized the need for governments to update their respective access protocols and procedures, make significant investments in freedom of information resources, and embrace proactive disclosure as part of a broader culture of openness and transparency. These changes are particularly important now, with respect to historical records, to counter misinformation and advance our collective commitment to reconciliation. 

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