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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A Canadian province has opened a fractious debate over whether a U.S. anti-terrorism law invades its citizens' privacy, a move that could affect how American firms do business with Canada.
British Columbia's top privacy official is probing complaints that the U.S. Patriot Act allows the FBI (news - web sites) to use U.S. firms -- and their foreign subsidiaries -- to gain access to Canadians' medical and financial records.
The law, enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, gives the FBI broad powers to collect information from companies without the subjects of the probe knowing they are under investigation.
Civil libertarians in both countries say Canada must take steps to protect its citizens' private information, but U.S. security officials and firms that collect and store personal data say the fears are overblown.
British Columbia is one of the first foreign jurisdictions to examine the Patriot Act's implications outside U.S. borders, and the study has drawn submissions from across Canada, the United States and Europe.
"The issue of transfers of personal information across borders goes to the heart of national sovereignty as well as to Canadian identity," the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada wrote in its submission.
PRIVATIZATION PLAN SPARKED WORRIES
The controversy arose when British Columbia signed a tentative agreement in March to turn its medical record-keeping operations over to the Canadian unit of U.S. information technology firm Maximus Inc. Under Canada's universal health care, the provinces administer the medical system.
Public employee unions and civil libertarians complained the records could become subject to a provision of the Patriot Act that can force U.S. firms to give the FBI a wide range of information without telling the people being investigated.
"The provision can be used against any person, business or organization to obtain any tangible thing," the American Civil Liberties Union (news - web sites) warned in its submission to B.C. Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis.
While the debate rages, the contract with Maximus has not yet been finalized and provincial employees are still handling the records.
The FBI already has access to information on Canadians held in databases based in the United States, and the countries have treaties on sharing other information.
But civil libertarians say the act lets U.S. investigators bypass Canada's federal and provincial privacy protection laws, by forcing U.S. companies to turn over records held by their foreign subsidiaries.
U.S. SAYS FEARS UNFOUNDED
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and FBI both submitted letters to Loukidelis saying the act did not raise undue privacy concerns in Canada or the United States and was an important tool to battle criminal and extremist groups.
"Nothing in the act, or in pre-existing federal law, would justify blanket requests or requests based solely on nationality, ethnicity, or any other form of a 'fishing expedition,"' FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni wrote.
EDS Canada submitted legal opinions that there were no undue privacy problems, and Microsoft Canada said the debate should not stop Ottawa, provinces and local communities from letting private firms handle their record keeping.
The Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), which also dismisses the privacy fears, warned that imposing drastic restrictions on database operations could cause economic problems.
"If Canada expects organizations in other countries to send personal information to Canada for processing by Canadian outsourcing partners, that trust and respect must be reciprocal," the industry group said.
ITAC said "virtually all major" firms providing information technology services like data-keeping in Canada -- including those based in the country -- have "significant operations" in the United States or are linked to American companies.
REPORT DUE IN OCTOBER.
Loukidelis' report is scheduled to be released in late October. The commissioner is expected to say whether he believes the fears about the U.S. law are valid and recommend how those concerns could be addressed.
The recommendations will not be mandatory but will become the focus of further debate if legislators across Canada decide they need to update provincial and federal privacy laws.
British Columbia officials say they are confident the privacy of the province's health records are protected but are awaiting the report.
The province, Canada's third largest with nearly 4.2 million people, has also said it will impose new rules on its U.S. contractors, such as requiring that databases with private information be located only in Canada.
The ACLU argues in its submission that the only way for Canada and the United States to address the privacy issue is to re-examine their international treaties on sharing information.
"EDS Canada submitted legal opinions that there were no undue privacy problems, and Microsoft Canada said the debate should not stop Ottawa, provinces and local communities from letting private firms handle their record keeping. "
hmm..although not surprising, I guess it's safe to say virtually anybody running windows is likely under survalence at some level, the patriot act has in a sense made that a legal thing for them to do..even know they started up echelon long before they forced congress to pass it.
I sincerly hope Canada tells the U.S. to back off, theres no reason why we should have to get suckered into more of their little games (another major one that comes to mind being the drug war which now in a way seems to go hand in hand with the war on terrorism even know it's likely the CIA still ships in alot of the drugs in the first place)
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