Author Archives: Teresa Scassa

Privacy Challenges in Open Government

By Teresa Scassa

The public-oriented goals of the open government movement promise increased transparency and accountability of governments, enhanced citizen engagement and participation, improved service delivery, economic development and the stimulation of innovation. In part, these goals are to be achieved by making more and more government information public in reusable formats and under open licences.

The Canadian federal government has committed to open government, and is currently seeking input on its implementation plan. The Ontario government is also in the process of developing an open government plan, and other provinces are at different stages of development of open government. Progress is also occurring at the municipal level across Canada, with notable open data and/or open government initiatives in Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa (to give a few examples).

Open government brings with it some privacy challenges that are not explicitly dealt with in existing laws for the protection of privacy. While there is some experience with these challenges in the access to information context (where privacy interests are routinely balanced against the goals of transparency and accountability), this experience may not be well adapted to developments such as open data and proactive disclosure, nor may it be entirely suited to the dramatic technological changes that have affected our information environment.

In a recent open-access article, I identify three broad privacy challenges raised by open government. The first is how to balance privacy with transparency and accountability in the context of “public” personal information (for example, registry information that may now be put online and broadly shared). The second challenge flows from the disruption of traditional approaches to privacy based on a collapse of the distinctions between public and private sector actors. The third challenge is that of the potential for open government data-even if anonymized-to contribute to the big data environment in which citizens and their activities are increasingly monitored and profiled.

I invite you to have a look at this article, which is published in (2014) 6 Future Internet 397-413.

Teresa Scassa, Canadian Research Chair in Information Law

Re-identification Risk and Proactive Disclosure of Data for Open Government: Lessons from the Supreme Court of Canada?

By Teresa Scassa

One of the challenges with the proactive disclosure of government data, and with open data more generally, is the obligation that governments have to not disclose personal information. This challenge is made more acute by the fact that the definition of “personal information” is, generally speaking, “information about an identifiable individual”.

Courts in Canada have said that identifiability is not considered solely in the context of the particular data set in question – information is personal information if it can lead to the identification of an individual when it is matched with information from virtually any other source.

The Supreme Court of Canada has just released a decision dealing with the issue of whether Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services was right to refuse to disclose information relating to the province’s sex offender registry. The concern in this case was that although the applicant sought only data about sex offenders living within the forward sortation areas, indicated by the first 3 letters of a postal code, this information could still be matched with other available information to specifically identify and locate individuals. Although the case deals with the province’s access to information regime, lessons can be extracted that are relevant to both the proactive disclosure of government information and to open data.

For more detail, see my blog post about this case, here: http://www.teresascassa.ca/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=159:re-identification-risk-and-proactive-disclosure-of-data-for-open-government-lessons-from-the-supreme-court-of-canada?&Itemid=80

Teresa Scassa University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law