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BC ID card consultations 'more than a day late and a dollar short'

Two privacy watchdogs have joined forces to call the Liberal government's B.C. Services Card consultation a "focus group for selling of the ID card program to British Columbians."

"The fact the government won't let the consultation recommend putting a stop to the program speaks volumes about how worried they are," said Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. "If they genuinely want British Columbians to have a say, they would leave all options open."

Gogolek and B.C. Civil Liberties Association policy director Micheal Vonn criticized the non-binding, narrow and late consultation in their Aug. 14 letter to Technology and Citizens' Services Minister Andrew Wilkinson.

The B.C. Services Card was launched in February as a combined drivers' licence and health services card. The government claims it is a cost-saving and convenience measure, but it has not released a cost-benefit analysis or business case to justify the move. The BCCLA branded it a "national identity card by stealth," believing the card is a test for the eventual rollout of a national identity card.

The Aug. 1-announced consultation includes the CitizensEngagement@gov.bc.ca email address open for public comments until Aug. 22. The government plans to hire a chair and a facilitator and randomly choose citizens for a public panel this fall. A report is due Dec. 31. The government won't allow the report to recommend elimination of the combined card or wholesale unwinding of the government's identity management program.

"That fact that your government has already launched this project should not prevent a consultative process from having the option of telling you that this is a bad idea and you should change course -- if that is what the participants conclude," wrote Gogolek and Vonn.

"This restriction will have negative effects on the credibility of the entire process, from the selection of members of the panel, to the chair and facilitator to the experts who will be providing advice to the panel. It may also result in a reduction in the submissions from members of the public who do not see the utility of the Government 2.0 process and are concerned about the likelihood of massive cost overruns and the risk of data breaches or other misuse of the data being collected, shared and mined."

Vonn and Gogolek said the reliance on email submissions from the public will preclude low-income B.C. residents from being consulted. Statistics Canada research quoted in the letter indicates 79 per cent of Canadian households have Internet connections and only 54 per cent of households in the lowest income quartile have access. "This means that the most marginalized British Columbians, who likely will be most affected by the Services Card, are the least able to voice their concerns in this consultation."

Vonn and Gogolek said the government ignored the 2009 recommendation of then-Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis that government consult before proceeding.

Based on Phase 1 documentation, Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham found privacy and security of the card was designed according to legal requirements. Phase 2 will include potential for data linkages across multiple platforms and the rollout could be jeopardized without building public trust, she wrote.

"The B.C. Services Card program raises significant concerns regarding misuse of personal data, such as unauthorized access, profiling, and function creep," Denham wrote in a Feb. 5, 2013 letter to Citizens' Services deputy minister Kim Henderson. "Solutions that government proposes to address these risks should be subject to scrutiny by both the public at large and by those with technical knowledge in the field."

A Ministry statement sent to The Tyee said: "The proposed consultation process will focus especially on how the recently introduced B.C. Services Card may be used as a key tool to enable how the Province's vision for digital services can best come to life.

"As outlined in the white paper, the proposed engagement process will include the review of all recommendations within the yet to be finalized terms of reference, including potential recommendations that propose a delayed or limited rollout of the system. Conversely, recommendations proposing an accelerated rollout would also be acceptable, subject to project constraints."

Vancouver journalist Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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