How many times have you heard it?
You ask for critical information from a government agency or a business.
Instead of getting the information you seek, you are told “Sorry, we can’t tell you that, for privacy reasons.”
It is true that privacy can sometimes be a legitimate reason to withhold personal information.
Sometimes not, too. Sometimes an organization uses privacy legislation as an excuse to withhold information.
Conveniently, they may refuse your request for reasons that has absolutely nothing to do with privacy.
They may want to withhold it to keep you from knowing what is going on.
They may want to make it harder for you to exercise your rights.
Or, they just want you to stop asking questions, and go away, so they can carry on with whatever they were doing to begin with. The problem is, though, sometimes, what they might be doing is running roughshod over someone’s rights. Your rights, or those of someone you care about, possibly.
Privacy legislation generally sets the ground rules for how organizations are permitted to collect, use, and disclose personal information. It also typically sets out how to access one’s own personal information.
“Personal information” is data about an “identifiable individual.” It is information that can identify the individual. If a person is not identifiable, then it is not “personal information” and is not protected by privacy legislation.
Information that has been anonymized, for example, is not personal information. An example may be the number of members in an organization that has several members. If, for example, there are 20 members, this not personal information, because the identity of the members is not revealed by the number.
Another example of information that is generally not considered to be personal information is information that is not about an individual because the connection with a person is too far-removed. An example may be a postal code which covers a wide area with many homes.
Unless this is combined with additional information that is not being provided, a mere postal code covering numerous homes does not reveal the identities of those within its area.
Though there are some exceptions, privacy law is rarely a legitimate reason to withhold your own personal information from you.
If you are ever told that “privacy law” prevents the information you seek from being provided to you, here is a possible response: “What specific legislative subsection do you think authorizes you to withhold that information from me?” The answer should be the name of a statute, and a specific section number.
The next follow up question: “On what basis do you think that provision applies here?”
Listen to the explanation. There should be a rationale.
Then, look up the provision and read it yourself. Research the provision on the applicable privacy commissioner’s website and elsewhere. If the interpretation offered is not satisfactory, follow up with the organization. You may be wise to put your request in writing. Look into your rights under the relevant privacy legislation. Be aware that tight deadlines may apply.
Generally, if the information you are seeking is not going to reveal someone else as an identifiable individual, chances are good that privacy law won’t be a legitimate reason to withhold the information you seek.