Consistent Purpose

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The English language is really complex.  Imagine a single word having so many different meanings and how it needs to be taken in context for the true meaning to become even slightly clearer.  For instance, when I grew up when something was “bad” it had a negative connotation.  Then along come kids saying “Man, that was bad” but they meant it in a good way.  I can understand why people get confused.

Let’s take a look at the phrase “consistent purpose”.  Ah, some of you see where I am going with this.  The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, (Alberta) states that:

Use of personal information

39(1) A public body may use personal information only
(a) for the purpose for which the information was collected or compiled or for a use consistent with that purpose,
(b) if the individual the information is about has identified the information and consented, in the prescribed manner, to the use, or
(c) for a purpose for which that information may be disclosed to that public body under section 40, 42 or 43.

What is a consistent purpose?  If the information was collected in order to get a student loan can that information be used outside of the student loan area?  It would be hard to justify any use outside of the area as being a consistent purpose.  But here’s where it gets tricky, within the student load area can the data be used freely or are there restrictions even within that area?

Well, the people that put the act together added some more text with regard to consistent purposes:

Consistent purposes

41 For the purposes of sections 39(1)(a) and 40(1)(c), a use or disclosure of personal information is consistent with the purpose for which the information was collected or compiled if the use or disclosure
(a) has a reasonable and direct connection to that purpose, and
(b) is necessary for performing the statutory duties of, or for operating a legally authorized program of, the public body that uses or discloses the information.

Yeah, that’s still a little bit waffly, isn’t it?  But here is the twist that most people don’t think about:  this isn’t about a consistent purpose from the perspective of the organizaiton, it is a consistent purpose from the perspective of the person giving up their information.  If I am applying for a student loan for the 2016-2017 school year than the purpose for which I am supplying the information is to get a loan for that school year. I am not supplying information so that you can make changes to the application for the following year, nor am I supplying that information for you to do data analysis to assist you in future endeavours.  My purpose was to apply for a student loan for a specific year and that is it.

It is not feasible for a member of the public to understand all of the permutations and combinations of ways that their data may possibly be used.  They don’t know how are systems are interconnected nor do they understand all of the services that a ministry provides.  Heck, I don’t know all of the services that my own ministry provides.  I have a better idea now than I did six months ago and I know it will be better in the future, but how is John Smith off the street supposed to know?

Consistent purpose must be viewed from an external perspective not an internal perspective.

If you have explicitly asked for their permission to use it in other ways, and they have agreed, then have at it.  But if you have not, then you can’t.  I like things simple and I think that approaching it from the end-user perspective keeps it simple.

Is this the best approach?  In my opinion, no, it’s not.  There are so many things that the Government can do to help its citizens if it could look at data from all ministries at the same time in a variety of ways, sometimes closely related, sometimes not.  Instead of being viewed as a myriad of government ministries, boards and agencies we would be viewed as the Government of Alberta.  A single organization with a single window into government services.  But this requires changes, changes to FOIPP to make it easier for the Government of Alberta to act as a single entity and to use data provided to it to provide any and all potential services to its clients.

For the vast majority of people this will be of great benefit.  For a small minority it won’t be, but some of those are trying to “scam” the system.  For some people, however, the idea that giving information to the government and letting all parts of the government access that data is inherently abhorrent.  But they are the minority, a vocal minority, but still a small minority.

If we can save taxpayers millions of dollars per year and provide substantially better service to the vast majority, do we acquiesce to the minority?  I don’t have an answer, I just ask the questions.

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