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Disclosing Requester Identities

Background

An anonymous letter was received by the Information Commissioner, alleging improprieties within Citizenship and Immigration Canada in the processing of access requests. In particular, the writer alleged interference in, and delay of, the process by the Minister’s Office. As well, the writer alleged widespread disclosure within the department of the identities of access requesters.

Based on these allegations, the Information Commissioner initiated a complaint on his own motion and commenced an investigation.

Legal Issues

Does the Minister’s Office have an involvement in the processing of access requests in Citizenship and Immigration Canada and, if so, is such involvement proper? Are the identities of access requesters used and disclosed in accordance with the requirements of the Privacy Act? These were the principal issues addressed by the investigation.

With respect to the involvement of the Minister’s Office, the investigation confirmed that, in the past, the Minister’s Office was part of the access to information process. Without a sign-off from the Minister’s Office, access requests could not be answered. However, because of the delays caused by such a process, the department had made significant changes.

At the time of the investigation (and for some 6-8 months prior to it), the Minister’s Office received notice of selected impending access disclosures, but it played no approval role or did it have any delaying effect. The investigation confirmed that the Minister’s Office played no role in deciding whether or not to exempt requested information.

With respect to the issue of disclosure of requester identities, the investigation determined that care was taken by officials to disclose requester identities only to the extent necessary to process the request. For example, officials in operating areas who are tasked to find requested records are not informed of the requesters’ identities; neither are identities disclosed to senior officials or the Minister’s Office.

Consequently, the commissioner was satisfied that the anonymous allegations did not have merit at the time they were investigated.

Lessons Learned

Departments are becoming more sensitive to the need to separate their access to information process from their communications services to the minister. By so doing, delays and unnecessary disclosures of requester identities are likely to be avoided. 

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