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Privacy information basics

Understand the importance of privacy and your legal obligations concerning the use of personal information in research.

Why does privacy matter?

The term “privacy”, not defined in British Columbia legislation, has different definitions. To some, it means anonymity, while still others believe it means the right to be unobserved. It includes the right to control access to your physical space, your body, your thoughts, your communications and your information.

A pernicious yet enduring myth is that privacy matters only to those who have something to hide. Most of us have nothing to “hide”, yet still maintain the right to control the context, timing and extent of disclosures. Privacy matters because we all have the right to maintain a private life, separate and apart from our public life. We negotiate our identity in the world and choose to share pieces of ourselves with those we trust.

More than this, the essence of liberty in a democratic society is the right of individuals to choose, subject to demonstrably necessary and carefully tailored limits, what information they share with others.

Privacy matters because our physical and emotional well-being requires it. Imagine going to your doctor, dentist, priest or counselor without any confidence that the information you supplied during those sessions would remain private. Privacy also matters because our economy depends on it. Imagine going to a credit union for a loan, to a lawyer to draw up a will, to a financial planner, to a property management company to rent an apartment, or to the internet to purchase a book online without any guarantees that the information you provided would be respected and kept confidential. As recent years have shown, the costs of fraud, identity theft and other misuse of our personal information are real, substantial and mounting. These losses harm individuals, but they can also harm economic activity and growth.(1)

(1) Denham, E. (2014, May 28). Statutory Review of the Personal Information Protection Act: General Briefing for the Special committee to Review the Personal Information Protection Act (pp.3-4). Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia.

What is 'personal information?'

Personal information is any factual or subjective information, recorded or not, about an identifiable individual. It includes:

  • the individual's name, address or telephone number,
  • the individual's race, national or ethnic origin, colour, or religious or political beliefs or associations,
  • the individual's age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status or family status,
  • an identifying number, symbol, or other particular assigned to the individual,
  • the individual's fingerprints, blood type or inheritable characteristics,
  • information about the individual's health care history, including a physical or mental disability,
  • information about the individual's educational, financial, criminal or employment history,
  • anyone else's opinions about the individual, and
  • the individual's personal views or opinions, except if they are about someone else.

Personal information does not include not include contact information (as above) or work product information (i.e. information an employee prepares or collects as required for the job).