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Labor groups raise outsourcing privacy concerns

Canadian activists aim to block plans to contract out medical processing to U.S., point to Patriot Act's weak privacy protections.

Canadian activists are warning that processing of medical information about British Columbia residents should not be outsourced to U.S. companies because of the Patriot Act's weak privacy protections.

A coalition of Canadian advocacy groups, led by unions who fear that jobs will be lost to more efficient workers south of the border, is trying to block the provincial government's plans to contract out the processing of its medical services plan to U.S. companies.

"We remain convinced that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to keep British Columbians' private information away from the prying eyes of U.S. intelligence agencies who are using the USA Patriot Act to scour information data bases for perceived threats," George Heyman, president of the provincial Government and Service Employees' Union, said last week.

Concerns over offshore outsourcing are hardly new, of course, but typically U.S. workers have been the loudest critics of the practice. The Communication Workers of America's Washington state affiliate estimated that hundreds of thousands of jobs have been moved offshore and vowed to make offshoring a prominent campaign issue in the 2004 election.

U.S. politicians have raised similar protectionist objections, with Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., saying earlier this year that outsourcing of U.S. jobs affects privacy. "There is no assurance that privacy will be protected when personal data is transferred to offshore companies that are beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement," he said.

A 34-page legal analysis released Monday suggests that the Canadian unions are exaggerating the impact of the Patriot Act. A section of the law enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks lets police obtain records from any company with a U.S. branch if the information is said to be "relevant" to a terrorism investigation. The request is made to a secret court that meets behind closed doors in Washington, D.C.

The report, written by Michael Geist and Milana Homsi and filed with the British Columbia Privacy Commissioner, says that current rules granting police the power to review data are "not significantly different than that which was available in a pre-Patriot Act era through grand jury subpoenas and national security letters." (National security letters are a type of administrative subpoena that doesn't require a judge's prior approval.)

The report also says that a Canadian law called the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act authorizes companies to secretly disclose data to government officials--a definition that could include U.S. police.

"One of the things that comes out is that the larger privacy issues aren't addressed by restrictions on outsourcing," said Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. He predicted that "other privacy commissioners in Canada at a minimum are going to be looking at this issue," along with European governments.

A filing last week by the British Columbia Federation of Labor veered in a more protectionist direction, saying: "No personal information about British Columbia citizens should be placed in the custody or control of any entity subject to the provisions of the Patriot Act, or similar legislation existing in other jurisdictions. This information should remain firmly under the control of provincial and federal governments that are accountable to the citizens of Canada."

Canada's union activists--who count a dozen other groups including British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, the British Columbia Library Association, and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association as allies--have until Aug. 6 to file their own comments with the British Columbia Privacy Commissioner. The union also has asked the Supreme Court of British Columbia to block the proposal.