Privacy used as a cover – comment/editorial – Privacy used as a cover
May 22, 2008

Politicians and other public officials are often quick to say that “privacy laws” prevent them from releasing information. Sometimes their silence is justified, sometimes not. But Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian has issued a welcome reminder that such claims should never be accepted at face value.

In her annual report, released yesterday, Cavoukian says public officials often “play it safe” by invoking privacy laws instead of exploring options for disclosure. She also expresses frustration that, when information is improperly withheld, “privacy laws are mistakenly faulted as being the culprit – doing more harm than good.”

The recent controversy surrounding the apparent suicide of an 18-year-old Carleton University student highlights these tensions. Family members complained they had not been informed that the young woman was being treated for depression. But the university said it was bound by privacy laws not to disclose her condition.

While Cavoukian’s report does not address this particular case, she said at a news conference yesterday that “privacy laws … permit the disclosure of personal health information where it is necessary to eliminate or reduce a significant risk of serious bodily harm.”

Cavoukian’s message goes well beyond issues of medical disclosure. In her report, Cavoukian urges public officials not to hide behind privacy laws, and calls on citizens and journalists to “dig deeper” when they are told privacy prevents the release of information.

What section of the law bars the information from being made public? Why does the law forbid it? When does the law allow the release of such information? And are there any exemptions for public safety?

Cavoukian’s report reminds us that privacy is a “precious freedom” that ought not to be used as “a convenient cover for human error, lack of judgment or inaction.”

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