Apr 172011

British Columbia is in the forefront of a massive expansion of government accumulation of private information about citizens. The BC plan is beguilingly called, ‘Citizens @ the Centre: BC Government 2.0

But what’s really at the centre is all your private and confidential information. And at the periphery will be tens of thousands of portals, giving bureaucrats access to your secrets.

Ms. Michael Vonn, Policy Director for the BC Civil Liberties Association, spent an hour on RoadKill Radio Tuesday night revealing hidden dangers in the system that the provincial government doesn’t want to talk about.

“It’s good to have enough time to unpack these things,” she said. Congratulations on your format.”

She stated that the Ministry of Children and Families and the Health Ministry—two bureaucracies with which RoadKill Radio has battled for two seasons—are at the forefront of the invasion of British Columbians’ privacy.

Terry O’Neill, recalling the Wikileaks scandal, asked “How easy [would it be] for one person to get access to hundreds of thousands of e-mails and then leak them?”

Micheal Vonn rephrased the question: “Could a rogue employee do something nefarious? They could. Those people do exist, and they can and will do such things.”

She gave a Canadian example: Last September, Sean Bruyea, an outspoken critic of the Veterans’ Affairs department, learned that his confidential medical information, held in the electronic system of Veterans’ Affairs, had been accessed—more than 600 times! His psychiatric records, pertaining to post-traumatic stress disorder, had found their way into ministers’ briefs all the way up to the Prime Minister’s Office.

“If we think that was a rogue situation,” she said, “the Ombudsperson who investigated… found out that his medical information in the VA system had been accessed over 400 times… people were constantly looking into these records—and apparently more than one person—to find something prejudicial, or to screen people on inappropriate criteria, or to do several other nefarious things.

“So when we speak of ‘a rogue individual’, there can also very quickly grow up a rogue culture.”

“Finally, there’s a category that may constitute the largest repository of screw-ups, and that’s ‘inadvertent’—somebody could walk out of there with an entire data base on a memory stick and leave it in their freaking car. If it’s unencrypted, and the car is unlocked, we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of confidential records!”

“We’re at a critical juncture,” Vonn said, “a place where we’re completely turned upside down… the government is going after private sector information… and it’s going to transform that information into government information, so it can do with it what it will… Right now, the government contracts with a whole bunch of community-based service providers, to provide the kind of community-based services that the government just really shouldn’t be in the business of; because the providers are closest to the demographic they serve… there’s a legacy of trust and various other things.

“The kind of community-based systems are social services, transition houses, addiction services… in which a therapeutic or confidential relationship is critical.” That relationship requires protection of privacy.

But Vonn said the government is now proposing to say to those service providers, “If we give you any money… we own your data.”

“This is horrifying,” says Vonn. She gave an example from the BCCLA’s current work:
“One of the cases we’ve been pushing forward, because alarms have gone off, is the BC Transition House Society; if that data coming out of the transition houses goes into the integrated case management system that the government is building… that information about women and children fleeing violence is going to be available throughout the province at tens of thousands of portals that can never be secured against those women’s and children’s abusers. And we’ll actually endanger their lives.”

Micheal Vonn described the provincial government and corporate submissions to a special committee to review the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act: they say, “Privacy is so yesterday, and it doesn’t allow us to do what we want to do. We’re going to update our approach”—specifically by gutting the Act. “And they’ve announced their intentions quite boldly,” she said.

Vonn told RoadKill Radio the model BC is using for Government 2.0 is the United Kingdom. She said, “I can tell you of the deep irony of wanting to be identified with the world’s most prominent surveillance society. The UK has gone down that road in a dire fashion. One of the things, apart from a million closed-circuit TV cameras, is that they are the world’s model of a data-base nation. And they’ve spent billions, billions, billions of pounds annually just maintaining the data system. One of the questions we have to ask is: ‘What are the costs?’”

Kari Simpson has called for citizen action to stop the bureaucratic invasion if privacy: “I know there’s a perception of apathy, but I don’t think it’s apathy. I think it’s ‘What do we do?’ Is there something we can do to put the brakes on? What needs to be done here?”

Vonn said, “We have some good opportunities; although the architecture has been spelled out, most of the system hasn’t been built yet… it’s going forward under so little transparency… and I’ve actually heard government officials: ‘People don’t care,’ they tell me. ‘Two percent of people care; so we’re going to roll this out.’

“To actually register on the government’s sounding board, we need ordinary people to say that they care. And I’m starting to see it, and it’s so exciting for me; because I feel I’ve been out in the wilderness, as a privacy advocate, for so long!

“I’ve actually given some talks recently, where just ordinary people are telling me stories—stories I haven’t heard before; here’s one:
“Talking about BC Education Information System, I was told, ‘My son’s in grade school, and my husband’s been looking at his report cards, and he says, “You know, he’s been pigeon-holed; they’re not looking at him properly.” Could that be the data system? Have they got a check-mark on his data somewhere, and they’re viewing him through that lens?’ And I said, ‘It’s entirely possible.’

“When people start feeling the prejudice, not only for themselves, but for their children—who may be characterized as ‘at risk’ for something, some kind of attention deficit disorder or something— some neural disorder that requires some kind of intervention—on the basis of no expertise whatever, and now it’s reified in the data base… I think people are starting to become alive to the issue.”

Vonn will be speaking in Toronto next month about cyber-surveillance.

Click here to listen to the whole hour interview on RoadKill Radio
Click here for the Citizens@the Center: Government 2.0 document

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