Privacy concerns emerge over TV citizenship stunt
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, February 6, 2012 8:52PM EST
OTTAWA - The personal information of hundreds of new Canadians might have been misused during the planning of a citizenship ceremony televised on the Sun News network, say privacy and immigrant advocates.
The NDP lodged a complaint with the federal privacy commissioner over the matter Monday.
Bureaucrats at Citizenship and Immigration Canada were directed by minister Jason Kenney's office last fall to organize a citizenship reaffirmation ceremony at the Toronto-based station on short notice. New citizens were to re-take their oath for the show.
A civil servant wound up drafting six fellow employees to pose as new Canadians when not enough newly naturalized Canadians showed up for the shoot.
But before that happened, Kenney's office asked that the department find 10 TV candidates.
"(Minister's office) is wondering whether Department would be able to solicit interest amongst 10 new Canadians to proceed to the Sun studio to simply reaffirm their citizenship," wrote Alexandra Hiles, a departmental liaison within Kenney's office.
Departmental staff in Toronto began calling "clients" of the department, or in other words, people who had a citizenship file with the feds. The records suggest that names were provided to communications staff of the department who do not process citizenship applications.
"It was my understanding that lists of clients were going to be provided to Comms (Communications) and that Comms would be calling the clients. Is Mississauga also trying to find potential clients for this activity?" wrote one regional director.
Another employee wrote: "I wanted to provide you with a quick update on how responsive/unresponsive the clients have been ... all the clients that are calling back are declining the request as they have to attend work and are not able to take the time off to participate in this reaffirmation ceremony."
"Manny and I have been calling clients all morning. We phoned approx. 300 clients that received citizenship at our office in August and September," wrote one supervisor at a Toronto departmental office.
"Those that we did get a hold of were not interested because they have to work. At this rate, we would have to call 3,000 to find 10."
The judge who conducted the reaffirmation ceremony, Aris Babikian, had initially offered to find the candidates himself but that idea was quashed by the department.
The Canadian Press asked for "all records" around the ceremony under the Access to Information Act, but none of them include discussions on the legality of dipping into a database of citizens.
Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, an Ottawa-based lawyer who specializes in access to information and privacy issues, said there appears to have been a breach of the Privacy Act.
He points to a section that says personal data under the control of a government institution shouldn't be used "except for the purpose for which the information was obtained or compiled by the institution or for a use consistent with that purpose."
There are exceptions, but none of them refer to promotional or media activities.
"In this case, when I see it, anybody and everybody who submitted their information to the government of Canada to become a Canadian citizen did not say 'You can use this information to use me as a political prop or an advertising prop or whatever else it is'," said Drapeau.
Under the current Conservative government, the federal telecom regulator created a Do Not Call list to deter telemarketers. Statistics Canada axed the long-form census out of government concerns of intrusiveness.
Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman said just a call from the immigration department can set off anxiety among some of his clients.
"I have serious concerns that the use of the information in this fashion was clearly not for the purposes for which the information was provided," Waldman said.
"The successful applicants had already been granted citizenship, the files had been closed, and to access it for what was obviously a publicity stunt for the minister is not a legitimate public purpose, and I would think it would be a breach of the Privacy Act."
But privacy specialist Valerie Steeves from the University of Ottawa said the matter might fall into a grey area because a citizenship ceremony is an inherently public act.
"My status as a new Canadian is not a private one. ... It's definitely a secondary purpose, they've repurposed the information from providing client services to me to doing their own self promotion," said Steeves, of the department of criminology.
"I might not be too happy if they called and I'd have the right to say no, but it seems to me that my status of citizen is still a matter of publicity."
NDP immigration critic Don Davies wrote to federal privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart on Monday asking her to investigate whether the Act was breached.
"If the personal information of these new Canadians was used, without their consent, for the material and political gains of a private television channel, it would set a troubling precedent," Davies wrote.
Anne-Marie Hayden, a spokeswoman for Stoddart, said the office couldn't speculate on whether there had been a violation of the Act without conducting a detailed examination.
"If, however, an individual who was contacted has concerns that this may have been a privacy violation, they could file a complaint with our office and we would investigate," Hayden said.
Kenney spokeswoman Candice Malcolm said "all privacy laws were followed in this case."
"Citizenship and Immigration Canada repeatedly scores well in various reports when it comes to its management of information, under privacy and access laws," Malcolm said.
"Most recently, in the 2011 Treasury Board review, CIC received the highest possible rating, 'Strong', for its dealing with (access to information and privacy) governance issues."
The access-to-information documents show that staff within Kenney's office specifically asked for their names to be blacked out before release to The Canadian Press, a request not always made by political employees.
Bureaucrats suggested to Kenney's office and to Sun News that the network instead tape one of the many actual citizenship ceremonies taking place across Canada during citizenship week last October.
Kenney's office and the Sun pushed for the ceremony.
During question period in the House of Commons last Thursday, Kenney blamed the presence of stand-in new Canadians on the bureaucrats.
"I became aware that in a reaffirmation ceremony last year following logistical problems that the situation was poorly handled," Kenney said.
"I regret that, but that in no way should undermine the importance and value of special reaffirmation ceremonies which we encourage all Canadians to participate in."
The two Sun News co-hosts who referred to the "new Canadians" in the studio that day have also said they were unaware of the snafu until The Canadian Press began asking questions.