Privacy Commissioner of Canada Philippe Dufresne and Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario Patricia Kosseim


Protecting your privacy

The landscape for privacy rights has never been more complex. Two of the country’s most prominent advocates for privacy protection are McGill alums: Philippe Dufresne, the privacy commissioner of Canada, and Patricia Kosseim, Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner.

Story by Mark Witten

May 2023

The threats to Canadians’ privacy rights are growing increasingly complex in a digital world driven by AI and analytics and dominated by Big Tech and social media.

Two of the country’s most prominent advocates for protecting our privacy rights are graduates of McGill’s Faculty of Law – Philippe Dufresne and Patricia Kosseim. Dufresne, BCL’98, LLB’98, is Canada’s privacy commissioner, while Kosseim, BCom’87, BCL’92, LLB’92, is the information and privacy commissioner of Ontario.

Dufresne, who was appointed privacy commissioner last June, views this as a pivotal time for privacy protection in Canada.

“There has never been a more important time for privacy from the standpoint of great transitions and change,” says Dufresne. Last year, his office investigated cases involving a range of privacy concerns – everything from the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement agencies, to the location tracking of Tim Hortons customers.

“Our laws on the public and private sector sides of privacy are past due for modernizing and they need to catch up to the technologies that have been developing and continue to develop at a very rapid pace,” says Dufresne.

“As a society, all of us – young and old – are using technology more and more, and the pandemic has accentuated that. So, we need to get it right by ensuring both the benefits of the new technology and the fundamental rights of Canadians to their privacy.”

Bill C-27, the new Digital Charter Implementation Act – which modernizes private sector privacy laws and strengthens the privacy commission’s enforcement powers – is a key tool Dufresne will be using to help accomplish that goal. Bill C-27 had its second hearing in the House of Commons in November, and he expects new public sector privacy legislation to be coming soon.

Bolstered by new privacy laws and a stronger mandate, Dufresne aims to promote a culture of privacy where Canadians don’t feel they are being nudged to give more information than is strictly necessary or proportional to achieve a private or public sector organization’s purpose. “Organizations need to treat privacy as a priority that’s top of mind. When organizations innovate and design new initiatives, they need to build privacy in at the beginning and not as an afterthought,” he says.

Dufresne believes Canadians should be able to fully participate as active and informed digital citizens – and reap the economic benefits of innovation – without having to give up their privacy rights. He regards privacy as a fundamental human right – and the protection of human rights has been one of the main preoccupations of his career.

He was once the senior general counsel for the Canadian Human Rights Commission, where he worked for almost 15 years. As a lawyer for the commission, he appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada on 15 occasions. These included a major pay equity case in which female postal workers were awarded $150 million, and cases advocating on issues ranging from accessibility and freedom of expression to workplace protection for Parliament Hill staff.

“My first Supreme Court case involved the institutional independence and impartiality of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, an important issue that will resonate with me in my current role, ensuring that we have similarly independent and impartial systems for privacy,” says Dufresne.

More recently, he served as the chief legal officer of the House of Commons, and that experience is already proving useful to him in his new role. He had a close-up view of Parliamentarians at work and what goes into decisions about developing, passing, and implementing new legislation. He believes he built a level of trust with Parliamentarians that will be helpful when he gives advice on new legislation and on amending or improving it as it goes through various readings.

As a law student at McGill, Dufresne was influenced by his very first professor, Nicholas Kasirer, BCL’85, LLB’85 – now a Supreme Court of Canada justice – to pursue a career in public service.

“It stayed with me, the inspiration not only of this amazing jurist and his strong legal understanding, but also of someone absolutely committed, who encouraged public service and contribution to institutions and to one’s society,” says Dufresne. “You can do it in academia, as a judge, or as a privacy commissioner. That commitment to institutions and to the fundamental rights of Canadians is something I saw and experienced more broadly at McGill.”

For her part, Kosseim has been dealing with privacy, access, and digital data issues throughout her career and from different vantage points. She served in executive positions with Genome Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), as senior general counsel and director-general with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, and most recently as counsel in Osler’s Privacy and Data Management Group.

“When you have worked in the private sector, public sector, research, academia and the health sector, every path along the way you come to appreciate the different perspectives and what different sectors in society are trying to do for the benefit of the collective good. That has given me the ability to understand where people are coming from and establish those relationships of trust with diverse stakeholders that you need to be a modern and effective regulator,” she says.

She learned early in her career that it is both essential and feasible to build privacy protection into the development of new science and technology initiatives. As an ethics officer at CIHR, Kosseim helped develop ethical guidelines for the use of personal health information in large population health studies and biobanks. She also advised the health research community on ways to protect the privacy of individuals while obtaining valuable data to advance science and improve the health of Canadians.

As information and privacy commissioner, Kosseim works not only with digital health care stakeholders, but those in many other sectors across Ontario to protect and promote privacy and access rights. “This is a dream role in terms of the data-related issues we’re living through as a society and to be at the heart of the problem as an advocate representing people’s rights,” she says.

“To implement the best digital technology and innovations in the health sector, government, law enforcement and private sector, it’s essential to build public trust by integrating respect for people’s rights, including privacy and access to information. Without that trust and protection of those fundamental rights, you can’t get buy-in for their responsible use,” she adds.

Kosseim hopes to get the public more involved and engaged in the work of her office. She hosts a podcast called Info Matters and blogs on her office’s site about the issues that she and her colleagues regularly deal with. Last fall, her office launched the Transparency Challenge, a new initiative that spotlights innovative projects or programs in Ontario at the provincial and municipal levels that improve government transparency.

Guided, in part, by input she has received from the public, Kosseim has focused on advancing and protecting privacy and access rights in four strategic areas: privacy and transparency in a modern government; children and youth in a digital world; next-generation law enforcement; and trust in digital health.

Having worked at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada for more than a decade, Kosseim says she enjoys operating at the provincial level where it’s often easier to connect directly with people than it was at the federal level. “Just by their nature, all the areas of provincial jurisdiction bring you closer to the ground, closer to the public.”

Kosseim says her interest in addressing ethical, legal, and societal issues began when she took a one-year break from studying after the completion of her McGill management degree and worked as a researcher for the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law. She enrolled at McGill’s Faculty of Law the following September.

“During my four years at law school I learned how to learn, how to think, how to approach and analyze issues, which proved to be indispensable skills through my entire career and in my current role,” she says. “McGill was also a time for me to discover my passion and my calling, and to follow my heart.”

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