The recently tabled Consumer Privacy Protection Act (CPPA) would allow organizations to use and disclose de-identified information for certain purposes without consent. This makes sense, but there is a flaw: information that is de-identified according to the law is not even personal information. So privacy legislation shouldn’t apply. Yet, according to the proposed CPPA, de-identified information is personal information, excluded from only some of the CPPA’s requirements. This seems to defeat the purpose of referencing de-identification in the first place, while potentially redefining the concept of personal information.
What is de-identification?
To de-identify personal information in the CPPA means the following:
to modify personal information — or create information from personal information — by using technical processes to ensure that the information does not identify an individual or could not be used in reasonably foreseeable circumstances, alone or in combination with other information, to identify an individual.
De-identified information appears to be a new category of personal information that would remain within the scope the CPPA, although certain uses and disclosures can be made without consent. De-identified information can be used by an organization internally for research and development purposes. It can be disclosed to government institutions, health care institutions, post-secondary institutions, or other entities prescribed in regulation, for “socially beneficial purposes”.1
The CPPA does not explicitly state that de-identified information is personal information. However, this is implied, as the CPPA applies only to activities involving personal information according to the sections of the law describing its purpose and application.2 There is nothing to suggest that the law is intended to apply to de-identified information in addition to personal information.
What is personal information?
To understand the problem, it’s necessary to consider the meaning of “personal information”, defined as “information about an identifiable individual”. There are two related and overlapping lines of inquiry under this definition. The first is whether the information is “about” an individual (as opposed to, for example, an object). The second is whether an individual is “identifiable”.
In the absence of statutory guidance, courts have used different language to interpret this definition. In 2007, the Federal Court of Appeal stated that an individual is identifiable if it is “reasonable to expect” that an individual could be identified from the information alone or combined with “sources otherwise available”.3 A year later the Federal Court of Canada adopted the standard put forward by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada: there must be a “serious possibility” of identifying an individual through the information alone or combined with “other available information”. 4
More recently, the Federal Court found that “serious possibility” and “reasonable to expect” are effectively the same thing: more than mere speculation or possibility, but not probable on a balance of probabilities.5
The need for a different threshold
De-identification in the CPPA uses effectively the same threshold as personal information, but in reverse. We’ll call this the “serious possibility/reasonably foreseeable” threshold. The courts have said that information is personal if there is a serious possibility that an individual could be identified, which is equivalent to “reasonable to expect.” Under the CPPA, personal information becomes de-identified if there are no “reasonably foreseeable circumstances” in which an individual could be identified. So personal information that is de-identified under the CPPA should not be personal information according to our current understanding of personal information as interpreted by the courts. Except, in the CPPA, it is.
Here’s another way of looking at it. In our current world, information becomes personal when it rises above the threshold of serious possibility/reasonably foreseeable, as seen in figure 1 below. Yet, under the CPPA, information that is personal information becomes de-identified personal information when it crosses below the threshold of serious possibility/reasonably foreseeable, as seen in figure 2.
An obvious question is when, if ever, does personal information become non-personal? In other words, once information becomes personal and within the scope of the CPPA, is it possible to transform it so that it is outside the scope of the CPPA? Currently, information that is sufficiently de-identified to no longer qualify as personal information is not regulated under PIPEDA (even if it is not truly anonymized). The effect of the CPPA seems arbitrary. If the information had been collected in a manner that never met the threshold for what constitutes personal information, it would never be subject to the law. However, because the information was, at some point, within the scope of the law, it is permanently trapped.
Even more confusing, does this alter the definition of personal information? If so, where is the new threshold? It seems that this would have to be lower under the CPPA than it already is.
It might be argued that there is a meaningful difference between “serious possibility/reasonable to expect” and “reasonably foreseeable circumstances”. But this isn’t tenable. When comparing “serious possibility” with “reasonable to expect”, the Federal Court said that it may be “impossible” to discern a meaningful difference. There’s no way the rest of us could be expected to differentiate between “reasonable to expect” and “reasonably foreseeable”.
Even less probable is an intentional effort to expand the definition of personal information, and in turn, the scope of the law. The government would have to be more explicit about such a significant change.
Most likely, this is just a well-intentioned idea with flawed execution, which would make the law too confusing.
One potential solution is to modify the definition of “de-identify” by removing the reference to reasonably foreseeable circumstances, as follows:
de-identify means to modify personal information — or
create information from personal information — by using
technical processes to ensure that the information does
not identify an individual.
or could not be used in reasonably
foreseeable circumstances, alone or in combination
with other information, to identify an individual
This would create a threshold for de-identified information that is clearly distinct from the definition of personal information, which would seem to accomplish the objective of including de-identified information in the CPPA.
Another option is to just remove all references to de-identification from the law. Though maybe not ideal, if the threshold for de-identification is not modified to differentiate it from the definition of personal information, then the law would be better without it.