Accessing personal information under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act of British Columbia.




Elliott, Carol

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Rapid advances in information technology have led to a considerable body of scholarly research focused on the evolution of the “surveillance society.” This term is used by the author to refer to governments’ increasing ability to monitor and control the actions of citizens as well as their own operations. An associated area that is rarely examined in scholarly research is the process by which citizens access their own personal information from public bodies and the barriers that they encounter when attempting to do so. It is this area which will be the focus of this thesis. The thesis is based upon a descriptive study that involved a systematic investigation of how the political and governmental context influences the process of accessing personal information under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act of British Columbia. The goal of the research is to examine factors that encourage and limit individual citizens’ ability to access their own personal information. The thesis explores issues and circumstances that lead applicants to appeal decisions, factors that facilitate and impede access, and the impacts of the request process on applicants. Recommendations for changes that may improve access as well as enhance government transparency and accountability are proposed. I approach the research from the perspective that open and accountable government is necessary in democratic society, and that, through increased public awareness and avenues for input, changes can be made which improve access to personal information and government accountability. The research involved a content analysis of fifty-three orders by the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia and his staff. The content analysis of these documents is supplemented by statistical analysis and personal reflection. The thesis relies on concepts and theory proposed by Max Weber and Anthony Giddens to provide a viable framework for understanding both the structure and culture of government, particularly how the access to information process reflects the control and flow of information within the bureaucracy. The research confirms that barriers to access do exist and they are not in the places that one might expect to find them. Recommendations concerning amendments to the legislation and improvements to the processing of requests and the appeal process are suggested. However, the most crucial change necessary is for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, despite fiscal restraints, to engage in greater transparency concerning its own activities and for the role of the Commissioner to focus more on public education and advocacy, such as support for community programs that would offer free legal assistance and information concerning the public’s rights under the Act, including guidance concerning how to make a request and pursue a complaint or appeal.



surveillance, access, information, privacy