The federal government and your personal information
Governments need information about their citizens in order to deliver programs and set public policies in vital areas, such as health, transportation, public safety and national security.
At the same time, Canadians need to know that their personal information is being collected, used and disclosed only according to strict rules that preserve their right to privacy.
The Privacy Act sets out the privacy rights of Canadians in their interactions with the federal government. It obliges government institutions to respect the privacy of individuals by controlling the collection, use, disclosure, retention and disposal of recorded personal information.
The Privacy Act applies to the federal public sector, which includes about 250 departments, agencies and Crown corporations, ranging from Agriculture and Agri–Food Canada to the Yukon Surface Rights Board.This document provides information about your rights under the Privacy Act.
What is personal information?
The Privacy Act offers protections for personal information, which it defines as any recorded information “about an identifiable individual.”
It can include your race; national or ethnic origin; religion; age; marital status; blood type; fingerprints; medical, criminal or employment history; information on financial transactions; home address; and your Social Insurance Number, driver’s licence or any other identifying number assigned to you.
What personal information is the federal government allowed to collect?
The Government of Canada collects personal information in the course of operating programs and services, such as tax collection and the provision of employment and other income-related benefits.
The government needs to know who you are and what your personal circumstances might be in order to deliver such services.
The Privacy Act, however, states that the government may collect only the personal information it needs for specifically identified purposes. Thus, for example, the government could require you to provide your country of origin for something like an immigration matter or the national census.
How is my personal information protected?
In passing the Privacy Act and appointing a Privacy Commissioner, Parliament asserted Canadians’ right to privacy. It concluded that, while the federal government needs to collect and use the personal information of Canadians, it must do so in a way that does not unduly interfere with people’s privacy.
The Act obliges the government to collect only the personal information it needs to carry out its functions, to keep it accurate, complete and up-to-date, and to destroy whatever is no longer needed. If the government needs to share your personal information with other departments or organizations, it can do so only under certain conditions.
How do I find out what the federal government knows about me?
Under the Privacy Act, you can file a request for access to your personal data. We have prepared guidance on requesting access to your personal information but, in brief, the steps are as follows:
- Determine which department or agency holds the information you want to see. All federal government institutions are listed in a public directory called Info Source, along with their mandates and responsibilities.
- Find the contact information for the organization's Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) co-ordinator.
- Follow the steps for filing a request for personal information.
- Once you receive your personal information, you can ask the department to make any necessary corrections.
What is my recourse if the government refuses access to my personal information?
If you have filled out your access to personal information form and have been denied access to your personal information, we encourage you to:
- Contact the ATIP co-ordinator in person to discuss the matter further.
- If that brings no satisfactory results, you can file a complaint with our Office.
You can learn more by consulting our background document entitled What to Expect During a Complaint Investigation under the Privacy Act, and by following the steps in our guide, How to File a Privacy Complaint.
Tip: If you need help, you do not need to hire an outside specialist. If you have questions about your privacy rights or our complaints process, you can contact our Information Officers by calling 1-800-282-1376.
Instead, you can contact our Information Centre for free at 1-800-282-1376.
What if I have other concerns about the government's handling of my personal data?
Over the years, Canadians have reported a various concerns ranging from perceived over-collection of personal information to disclosures of personal information that people felt were not authorized under the Privacy Act.
We generally recommend that individuals take the following steps when an issue arises:
- Contact the ATIP officer with the department or agency concerned, and try to resolve the issue directly with them.
- If that fails, contact our Office for further information or advice.
- If necessary, file a complaint under the Privacy Act.
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