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B.C. touts privacy shield that offers protection from U.S. Patriot Act

DIRK MEISSNER

VICTORIA (CP) - The B.C. government is touting a home grown, probe resistant privacy shield it says will protect the personal information of British Columbians from the far-reaching provisions of the U.S. Patriot Act.

But civil liberties groups and labour unions are questioning the strength of the B.C.-made protection device against the powerful anti-terrorism Patriot Act passed by the United States following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Tough new privacy provisions, the strongest in Canada, will be introduced as law this fall to prevent the U.S. government from examining private information about British Columbians, Joyce Murray, B.C.'s Management Services Minister, said Friday.

The Patriot Act gives the U.S. government sweeping powers to review information banks of private and public businesses in an effort to hunt down terrorists, but B.C. wants those powers to stop at the U.S.-Canada border.

"(The Patriot Act) enables the U.S. law enforcement agencies to effectively reach around an existing set of agreements for how to share information to prevent terrorism," said Murray.

"That's not acceptable to us," she said. "We believe that is a sovereignty issue and with the new legislation that we're proposing they simply will not be able to do that."

Concerns about the potential reach of the Patriot Act into British Columbia were raised when the B.C. government said it wanted to privatize information services, including the management of medical records, as a way to modernize and save costs.

Unions and civil liberties organizations said information about British Columbians could be examined by the U.S. government if an American company was awarded a B.C. contract.

Murray said B.C. has developed a set of guidelines that will limit the strength of the Patriot Act in British Columbia.

The measures include: ensuring U.S. affiliates of Canadian and B.C. companies don't have access to, or control over personal information provided by a public body; and requirements to notify the government of any potential disclosure.

"If our suppliers do not adhere to the terms of the contract, and to the terms of the standards, their contracts will be terminated," she said.

But Micheal Vonn, a spokeswoman with the B.C. Civil Liberties Union, said B.C. appears to be tilting at windmills if it believes U.S.-based companies will comply with the B.C. law as opposed to the power of the U.S. government.

"The Patriot Act is subject to gag provisions that don't actually allow us to know when they are used," she said. "The gag provision, as far as we can tell, will subject U.S. parent firms or U.S. affiliates to contempt of court proceedings. I can't imagine what Canadian contractual penalties would weigh against that."

B.C.'s privacy commissioner David Loukidelis is examining concerns U.S. authorities such as the FBI might have access to B.C. residents' health information if the provincial government contracts out the billing of medical premiums to a company with a U.S. parent.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft were asked last May to contribute to a British Columbia study of the U.S. Patriot Act.

Geoff Plant, B.C. Attorney General, said the B.C. law takes great steps to prohibit companies from disclosing information outside of Canada.

"We have concluded that there are small and incremental risks posed by the Patriot Act that may need to be considered by all levels of government as well as the private sector," he said. "We are confident that with the right action those risks can be minimized and privacy will be protected here in British Columbia."

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