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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Pssst: Can. Gov. using access to information laws against citizens!

Honestly, is this a surprise to anyone?

Ann McLellan never gave me anything but a royal-runaround in my attempts to discover information about evidence retention.

"Sic Semper Tyrannis"

Government `abusing public's right to know'
Researcher says people seeking information are being `profiled'
Commons committee investigating whether privacy laws are being broken
Oct. 17, 2006. 01:00 AM

OTTAWA—Government officials are identifying people who request sensitive government information by name, their disparate requests, and on whose behalf the information may be used, in clear violation of the spirit of access laws, says researcher Ken Rubin.

In 24 years of digging up government information using the Access to Information and Privacy Act — everything from data on breast implant failures, aviation accident reports to sponsorship scandal records — Rubin has unearthed many an odd memo.
One of the oddest turned up more than 10 days ago — about himself.

Yesterday, Rubin outlined it to a parliamentary committee to illustrate what he believes is a widespread problem that goes beyond merely identifying access requesters by name. The committee is investigating how common that practice is, which is a violation of privacy laws.

The investigation began after the name of a Canadian Press reporter seeking information on security and pandemic preparations was disclosed to government officials.

Rubin says government officials are conducting political damage control efforts before sensitive information becomes public.
Tracking who is requesting information that ought to be made public is a "colossal waste of taxpayers' money" and a "system of risk management, not a system of good governance," he said.

Rubin cited a memo he received on Oct. 5, after a longstanding complaint to the Information Commission about the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). He had requested information about a secretive air passenger risk scoring system that was then in development.

The newly released memo, dated Jan. 27, 2004, was addressed to then-public safety minister Anne McLellan, and it identified Rubin by name and the nature of his request and the fact some information already released to him was cited in a Toronto Star article.

It then goes on to refer to other, unrelated work Rubin was doing for Maher Arar and his wife, Monia Mozigh, in seeking to clear their reputation. Arar was arrested by U.S. authorities in 2002 and deported to Syria, where he spent a year in prison without being charged and was tortured into confessingties to Al Qaeda.

Agency officials claimed the 2004 memo was never sent to McLellan's office. But Rubin says that does not clarify whether any verbal discussions about it were held.

Rubin told the committee the memo amounts to "profiling" him as a potentially troublesome requester, given that the Arar family was by then on the CBSA's border lookout list.

"This is unacceptable," Rubin told the committee.

"Matching up my background data and work and separate access requests should not be used to create a profile and discuss my access usage or that of other requesters.

"They are asking not only the identification but confidential personal information" about an access requester, said NDP MP Pat Martin.

Opposition parties, which form a majority on the access and ethics committee, already have forced a motion demanding the government produce a new Access to Information law by Dec. 15. The Conservative government has delayed much-promised reforms to the access act.

Retired Col. Michel Drapeau, a lawyer who has written a text on the access law, said he believes names of requesters of sensitive information have been known by political ministers "since the very beginning," when the act came into force in 1983.

But he says it should happen only in "very exceptional" circumstances if state interests are at stake, and not as a matter of course for political damage control.

Conservative MP Bruce Stanton said he was not convinced that divulging the identity of requesters is "somehow widespread." He said with 25,000 access to information requests annually and 36,000 requests for government information under the privacy act, "there is going to be some slippage or mishaps, yes."

Liberal MP Jim Petersen said ministers ought to be able to know when sensitive government information is being released in order to answer questions in the Commons or the media. But David Gollob, representing the Canadian Newspaper Association, said the content of the request may be revealed, but there is no need for the identity of a requester to be disclosed.

The committee has previously heard from deputy information commissioner Alan Leadbeater that the names of those who file access to information requests are disclosed far more often than they should be. But Leadbeater said it's difficult to catch government officials in the act.

Rubin says bureaucrats should make a genuine effort to release information in a neutral fashion to users of the act, as required by law, instead of trying to stymie their attempts and facilitating damage-control efforts before the information goes public.

"These practices create barriers to public access to federal records and abuse the public's right to know about Ottawa," he said.


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