Monday, May 13, 2013

The Census And Your Privacy: The Courts Speak

When Sandra Finely received her long-form census papers in 2006, she refused to fill it out because she felt that the requirement violated her right to privacy, and was therefore unconstitutional   She was taken to court for violating the Statistics Act, lost, and requested an appeal.

Her arguments were heard by the Saskatchewan Court of appeals and last week they issued their ruling.  She lost again.  To get a flavor of the court's decision, a fairly representative passage:

[39]   Thus, the question is not whether Ms. Finley had an expectation of privacy or even a reasonable expectation of privacy in dictionary terms.   The question must be linked to the overall context of the case.   In this case, the question must be cast in these terms:  whether a reasonable person would expect to have privacy in the information requested by the 2006 Long Form Census, which the government wishes to collect exclusively for statistical purposes to aid it in implementing sound and effective public policy, with no criminal or quasi-criminal repercussions flowing from the disclosure of such information, and with the specific information collected being ultimately generalized and “delinked” from the individuals being required to so disclose.  The trial judge answered this critical question negatively and the summary conviction appeal court judge found no error of law, mixed fact and law or fact in her conclusion.

Sandra Finley was the poster girl for that tiny minority of Canadians who support the federal government's elimination of the long-form census.  I think the court ruling makes clear why their concerns, where not driven by simple paranoia, are off-track.  We are supposed to be living in a knowledge-based economy, and it is essential that the government gather accurately and disseminate widely/cheaply such data as is necessary for that economy to function.  Period.  End of story.  If it takes an hour of Ms. Finley's day every few years...well, that's the price we pay for living in the modern world.

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