We must protect the privacy of Canadians

Speaker: Ms. May
Time: 28/11/2022 17:32:44
Context: Debate

Ms. Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands, GP): Madam Speaker, I acknowledge I am standing today, as any day that I am on Parliament Hill, on Algonquin land of the Anishnabeg peoples. I say a large meegwetch to them.

I am speaking today, as we all are, to Bill C-27, which is really three bills in one. My other parliamentary colleagues have already canvassed the bare outline of this, that we are looking at three bills: an act to create a consumer privacy protection act, as well a personal Information and data protection tribunal act, which largely replaces some of what there was already in PIPEDA in the past, and a brand new artificial intelligence and data act.

I want to start with the artificial intelligence and data act because it is the part with which all of us are least familiar. Much of what we see in this bill was previously before Parliament in last session’s Bill C-11. There is a lot here to dig into and understand.

As I was reading through the whole concept of what kind of harms are done by artificial intelligence, I found my myself thinking back to a novel that came out in 1949. The kind of technology described in George Orwell’s book, famously called 1984, was unthinkable then. The dystopian vision of a great writer like a George Orwell or a Margaret Atwood is hard to imagine.
I will never forget the scene in the opening of The Handmaid’s Tale, where a woman goes into a store and her debit card is taken from her. At that moment, we did not have debit cards. Margaret Atwood had to describe this futuristic concept of a piece of plastic that gave us access to our bank without using cash. No one had heard of it then.

There are the words from George Orwell, written in 1949, about the way in which artificial intelligence and new technologies can really cause harm, in a dystopian sense. In 1984, it states, “It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away.”
More recently, there is the song by The Police and written by Sting and others. I will never forget that once I went to a session on rights to privacy being under assault and a British jurist brought with him for his opening of the speech, “Every breath you take, And every move you make, Every bond you break, Every step you take, I’ll be watching you.”

We live in a time when artificial intelligence can be enormously invasive of our privacy with things like visual recognition systems, as the hon. member for Selkirk—Interlake—Eastman was just speaking to. These are things that, for someone like myself born in 1954, are all rather new, but it is new for people born in 1990, too. It is very new technology and bringing in legislation to control it is equally new and challenging for us as parliamentarians. The whole notion that we are going to be able to spot the ways in which artificial intelligence can affect our democracy is something that will take time.

We talk about harms from this kind of technology, from capturing algorithms, from invading our spaces. We do not have to look any farther than the way Cambridge Analytica was used by the anti-Brexit forces in the U.K. to harness a public outrage against something based on a pile of disinformation, targeting individuals, collecting their data. That kind of Cambridge Analytica concern also gets into part 1 and part 2 of this bill. We really do need to figure out how to control the digital tech giants from harvesting our information.

As an example used earlier today in debate, there is the idea that big digital giants, for profit motives of large corporations and without the consent of Canadians who may have put a family photo on social media, never know that their privacy has been invaded and their personal information and photos have been used for profit without their permission. In this sense, I am going to flag that in the context of the artificial intelligence and data act, I hope we will be taking the time necessary to hear witnesses specifically on this.

We have developed a pattern in recent years, which is to say the last decade or so, of having three or four witnesses appear on panels. All of us in this place know that committees are trying to hear from a lot of people and receive a lot of evidence. It will do us a disservice to dive into the artificial intelligence and data act if we combine panels with people who are experts on PIPEDA, people who are experts on other aspects of this bill and have a panel on artificial intelligence and data.

The committees that study this bill will control their own processes. Committees are the masters of their own processes, but I would urge the government, the Liberal legislative managers of this piece of legislation, Bill C-27, to follow the lead of the Speaker’s ruling earlier today. If we are going to vote on the artificial intelligence piece as a separate piece when we come to vote, at least we could make an effort to ensure that the concentrated effort of committee members and hearing witness testimony is not diluted through several different pieces of legislation and panels with three or four witnesses.

Members’ questions will inevitably and invariably go to one or two. In this format of panels and pushing witnesses through quickly, we lose a lot of content. Compared to when I worked in government back in the 1980s, which I know seems like the dark ages and no one in this room was on committees in those days, committees would hear from a witness who could speak for 15 minutes and then we would have the rest of an hour to ask that one witness questions. Now that we are into something as complicated as this area, I would urge the committee to give it that kind of attention or ask the government to send part 3, the artificial intelligence and data act, to a different committee so that the study can be thorough and we can educate ourselves as to the unintended consequences that will inevitably occur if we go too fast.

Turning to the parts of the bill that deal with privacy, I want to put on the record again, and a question was raised just moments ago, about whether privacy legislation should apply to political parties in Canada. At the moment, it does not. Political parties are exempted from the kinds of privacy protections that other organizations, NGOs and corporations must protect the privacy information of their customers, consumers and citizens.
Transcription in progress / Transcription en cours

Ms. Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands, GP): I will say quickly that I tend to agree with the first analysis that one of the NGOs was very concerned with privacy information. OpenMedia, in an article by Brian Stewart says very clearly that this legislation could actually make things worse in some privacy protection. They give the efforts of the bill, Bill C-27’s Consumer Privacy Protection Act and Personal Information and Data Protection Tribunal Act, a grade of D. In other words, it passes but just barely. There will be many witnesses.
I can certainly confirm that as the Green Party member of Parliament in this place, I will be bringing amendments forward, assuming this bill gets through second reading, which I think we can assume, and ends up at committee.

In the time remaining, I want to emphasize that Canada is aware that privacy is a fundamental human right. It is part of the UN declaration on the rights of individuals. I echo some of the sentiments from the hon. member for Selkirk—Interlake—Eastman in asking why we are looking at consumer privacy. Maybe we should change that word to Canadians’ rights and privacy.

I also agree with many members who have spoken today about the problems of section 18.3 and the number of exemptions along with the question of what is a legitimate reason that people’s privacy can be invaded. That should be further clarified. A reasonable person would expect the collection or use for such an activity to be fine, but the exemptions seem overly broad.
If I dive into anything else I will go over my allotted time.

This is important legislation. We must protect the privacy of Canadians. I think we will call on all parties in this place to set aside partisanship and make an honest effort to review it; not delay it, but an honest effort to review it before this bill leaves this place.