Personal data of Quebecers | The watchdog calls for “arms” and its independence

(Quebec) The watchdog of Quebecers’ personal data wants to obtain its independence from the government, which underfunds it. The Access to Information Commission would need to double its staff to be able to do its job as the state considers collecting biometric data on citizens.

Posted at 5:00 a.m.

Charles Lecavalier

Charles Lecavalier
The Press

“I wouldn’t say [qu’on est] toothless, but we would like to be able to bite when necessary. We were given the teeth in legislative terms, but […] to be able to apply the law in a strict way, it takes arms,” ​​said the president of the organization, Diane Poitras, in an exclusive interview granted to The Press.

Over the past year, the Commission d’accès à l’information (CAI) has received new missions with the adoption of five legislative measures requiring it to be given more oversight. The CAI has 77 employees. To be able to do her new job, she would need 79 more people. But she remains hungry. Minister Éric Caire, responsible for the file, explained in a parliamentary committee on Wednesday that it was not possible to increase the organization’s budget by nearly 12 million due to budgetary restrictions linked to the pandemic.


Éric Caire, Minister of Cybersecurity and Digital and Minister responsible for Access to Information and the Protection of Personal Information

But for M.and Poitras, this situation is abnormal, since the one who determines her budget, Mr. Caire, is also the one she must monitor. It is he, in particular, who wants to set up a digital identity. It is in this context that she affirmed, during the study of the appropriations of the Secretariat of access to information, that “more than ever, the situation demonstrates that the budget of the CAI must be protected from decisions [du gouvernement] while she is also responsible for monitoring him”.

“You wouldn’t imagine that the Auditor General’s or the Public Protector’s budget would be determined by the government. It is the parliamentarians who decide on their budget,” she said in an interview. She believes her body should have the same “independence” and “capacity to fulfill its mandate” as the AG. Mand Poitras points out that almost all of his counterparts in other provinces and at the federal level are independent of the government.

Important missions

She wonders, for example, about the use of biometric data by the Legault government, but does not have all the resources to properly monitor this digital transition.

This is not trivial, the use of biometric information by the state. It takes characteristics of the body to transform them into data. That in itself is intrusive.

Diane Poitras, President of the Commission d’accès à l’information

In the event of misuse, or a data leak, it calls into question “the citizen’s ability to identify themselves”. “You can’t replace your face, your finger, your hand,” says Mand Chests. She is worried, for example, about the “proliferation of biometric data banks”.

With such a small budget, it is also to be expected that the processing times for files at the CAI will be just as long. “The new responsibilities that have been entrusted to us, they will suffer the same fate. We will not be able to process them as soon as possible, ”she fears.

And the watchdog will not be able to do “proactive monitoring”. “There are a lot of projects announced or underway: digital transformation, digital identity, health reform, to name just three. Ensuring that all of this is done in a compliant manner is our role as an oversight body,” she says.

Support from the Liberals

Liberal MP Gaétan Barrette came to the defense of Mand Chests. He is convinced “that she cannot fulfill her new duties with the budget granted to her”.


Gaétan Barrette, Member of the Liberal Party of Quebec

Law 64 on personal information alone requires the CAI to carry out around twenty new tasks.

She must :

  • Carry out investigations on compliance with the legal obligations of businesses, public bodies and provincial political parties, particularly with regard to new obligations (estimated increase of more than a hundred investigations annually within three years);
  • Carry out inspections on new legal obligations (about twenty annually);
  • Process reports of confidentiality incidents and ensure follow-up (a substantial increase is to be expected as of September 2022 – the experience of the other provinces and the federal government suggests a 400% increase).

“He is the information watchdog, and the minister, knowingly, is going to amputate him,” denounces MP Gaétan Barrette. In his opinion, the Legault government “endangers the security of the personal information of Quebecers” with this budgetary choice.

In a parliamentary committee, Mr. Barrette pointed out to Éric Caire that the 12.5 million claimed by Mr.and Poitras was only a drop in the bucket compared to the budget of the Ministry of Cybersecurity.

Mr. Caire replied that we should “explain that to taxpayers who are doing their tax report at the moment that 12.4 million are peanuts”. He believes that the CAI is capable of doing its job with the budget allocated to it, an increase of 1.5 million in 2022-2023.

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