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Source: Toronto Star

Posted on December 16, 2003

      Canada's new privacy watchdog has two words for businesses scrambling to understand and comply with the country's new privacy legislation: Don't panic.

      "I want to say that very strongly," said Jennifer Stoddart, who took over the role of federal privacy commissioner on Dec. 1, nearly five months after a disgraced George Radwanski resigned from the post.

      "We're going to be very sympathetic to the problems of (trying) to implement a law of this sophistication."

      At the same time, she warned that "repeat offenders" risk being publicly shamed if it serves the public interest.

      On Jan. 1, the final phase of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act comes into force. The law requires all businesses across Canada to follow rules that aim to protect the personal information of their customers and employees.

      The first two phases applied to federally regulated companies, such as airlines, banks, broadcasters, telecommunications carriers and some health organizations.

      But the hard part comes in 16 days, when every business across Canada that collects and uses customer information for commercial purposes will need to comply, either with the federal law or similar legislation in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. After a lengthy delay, Ontario is expected to introduce its own legislation next year.

      For businesses, this means appointing a privacy point-person and putting systems in place to make sure customer information is secure, accurate, gathered with consent and not used beyond a stated purpose.

      "It's going to hit all kinds and sizes of businesses in Canada," said Stoddart, previously the privacy commissioner of Quebec, the first province to introduce private-sector privacy legislation back in the mid-1990s.

      Privacy experts say the far-reaching nature of the law is going to catch many organizations off-guard, particularly small businesses that have never heard of the legislation or simply don't know how to comply with it.

      A survey conducted last year for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce found that 81 per cent of small and mid-sized businesses were nearly clueless about the need to comply with new privacy legislation. The situation has improved, but a substantial number of businesses remain in the dark.

      "I think there is still an enormous lack of awareness," said Brian Keith, a lawyer with Borden Ladner Gervais in Toronto, and a specialist on privacy issues. "This may in part be a legacy of Mr. Radwanski's time, when his view of communication seemed to be flying to places and giving speeches.

      "I don't think that did a good job of getting the word out."

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