THE USE OF THE SIN
COMMISSIONER'S SPECIAL REPORT, 1981
OF COMMONS STANDING COMMITTEE REPORT
RESPONSE TO COMMITTEE REPORT
SOCIAL INSURANCE NUMBERS:
REGULATING THEIR USE
This paper discusses the
placing of restrictions on the collection and use of the social insurance
number (SIN), the most common unique personal identifier in Canada. The
SIN was introduced by the Pearson Liberal government in 1964 in order
to replace the national unemployment insurance number used by the Unemployment
Insurance Commission, then under the Department of Labour. That system
was running out of numerical combinations at the same time as a new registration
system was required for the soon-to-be-implemented Quebec and Canada Pension
Plans. It was felt that two systems of numbering would be entirely impractical
since approximately four and a half million employees would come under
both plans. However, the adoption of the SIN for use in pension disbursement
under the Canada Pension Plan came about only after considerable debate.
Some Members of Parliament expressed concern that extending the use of
the SIN might ultimately lead to a national numbering system.
Although the SIN was introduced
for purposes of federal unemployment insurance and pension plans, no controls
were placed on other uses. This has resulted in the proliferation of such
uses by organizations maintaining personal data banks in both federal
and provincial government institutions and in the private sector.
Between 1965 and the late
1970s, the House of Commons paid little systematic attention to the rapidly
increasing use of the SIN. When the Conservative government of Prime Minister
Clark was elected in 1979, however, it promised legislation that would
restrict such use. On 30 October 1979, the then Minister of State
for the Treasury Board, the Hon. Perrin Beatty, announced that the government
would shortly be proposing legislation:
to restrict the use
of the Social Insurance Number within the federal government where
provision of the SIN by individuals may be mandatory, along with some
initial steps to limit the use of the Social Insurance Number outside
the federal government... It is the governments intention to
reverse the trend towards the use of the Social Insurance Number as
the single identifying number in departments and agencies of the federal
government... The government is preparing legislation that will ensure
greater legal protection against unauthorized disclosure of personal
information and put constraints on the ability to link files using
SINs, by limiting the number of uses for the SIN. This legislation
will be introduced in this session of Parliament.(1)
However, the Conservative
government fell in December 1979, before these new legislative initiatives
could be introduced in the House of Commons. A definitive statement of
the governments intentions appeared in a letter from Mr. Beatty
to the Globe and Mail, published during the election campaign,
on 11 February 1980. He said that the SIN was being used for many unauthorized
purposes in both the public and private sectors:
Individuals are asked
to provide SIN for purposes unrelated to those initially envisaged
by Parliament and in many cases may be denied service if they refuse
to disclose their number or are simply not informed of the consequences
of not providing the SIN.(2)
The major new privacy legislation
planned by the Clark government was later introduced by Mr. Beatty as
a Private Members Bill, C-535,(3)
on 2 May 1980. The bill, which was essentially a revision of the original
privacy legislation (Part IV of the Canadian Human Rights Act of
1977), also proposed a new section of the Act, which would have limited
the federal governments use of the SIN to the administration of
an Act of Parliament or a number of basic programs: pensions, student
loans, family allowances, old age security, income tax and unemployment
insurance. Otherwise, "no right, benefit or privilege shall be withheld
from and no penalty shall be imposed on any individual by reason of a
refusal by the individual to disclose to a government institution the
Social Insurance Number assigned to the individual..." Except for
uses authorized by statute, individuals could have required that the SIN
be deleted from federal files about them. Whenever federal government
institutions requested a SIN, they would have been required to explain
the consequences, if any, of failure to provide it. Another provision
would have explicitly authorized the Privacy Commissioner to review complaints
about SINs. The bill died on the Order Paper.
THE USE OF THE SIN
Governmental and non-governmental
organizations increasingly came to use the federal SIN as a standard identifying
number in record-keeping systems containing personal information. In part,
the use of the number by institutions that provide pension or other income-related
benefits to members of the public facilitates confirmation of income by
the Department of National Revenue. More generally, however, the proliferating
use of the SIN was due to its convenience and the need for record-keeping
systems to have a method of identifying each individual on file; numbering
systems are more efficient than other techniques of identification. Rather
than establishing a different numbering system for each personal data
bank, organizations found it easier and cheaper to use the SIN.(4)
The growing use of the SIN
resulted in two different kinds of privacy-related concerns. First, there
appeared to be considerable public resistance to the use of identifying
numbers, and especially of one single identification number, on the grounds
that it represented a dehumanizing influence in modern social life. Second,
there were concerns that use of the SIN enhanced the possibility that
information gathered for one purpose might be used for another.(5)
Restricting the use of the
SIN, however, is not likely to result in an overall reduction in the use
of identifying numbers, which organizations find necessary in running
their record-keeping systems. The real concern is whether use of the SIN
should be allowed to continue unregulated so that one numbering system
comes to dominate personal record-keeping in both the public and private
In connection with concerns
about data linkage, the following must be considered. Although use of
the SIN does facilitate the integration of data bases, such integration
is also possible even where data bases do not use similar or identical
identifiers; in fact, as the technological capacity to integrate data
bases becomes more sophisticated, it appears that in future the use of
the same identifying numbers will have little or no impact on integration.
The crucial question with regard to data linkage, therefore, would appear
to be not whether it can be completely prohibited, but in what circumstances
and under what conditions it should be allowed.(6)
COMMISSIONERS SPECIAL REPORT, 1981
In 1980, the Minister of
Justice ordered a special study by the then Privacy Commissioner under
Part IV of the Canadian Human Rights Act, Ms. Inger Hansen, to
examine the extent of the use of the SIN and its implications for the
privacy of individuals. The terms of reference required the Privacy Commissioner
to examine the extent to which and the purposes for which the number was
being collected and used, and whether it was serving as a data linkage
device. The study was also required to examine what threats, if any, the
use of the SIN represented to the privacy of individuals and the implications
of possible regulation or prohibition of the collection and use of the
number. As the time for completion of the study did not allow for public
meetings, most submissions were in the form of comments and briefs. The
report was released in January 1981.(7)
The Privacy Commissioner
found widely differing attitudes to the SIN. Some individuals, for instance,
opposed its use on the basis that to be identified primarily by a number
was too impersonal. Others suspected that possession of a persons
number would provide access to all recorded information about that person.
Yet others felt that the number facilitated inappropriate linkage of data.
Some resisted using the number for religious reasons, while others had
an aversion to any use of personal identification numbers because of experiences
with such numbers during World War II. On the other hand, there were those
who praised the efficiency and accuracy resulting from the use of the
SIN in machine processing of data, and they advocated its universal application
for identification purposes.(8)
When asked why they objected
to the use of the SIN, most people answered that possession of it allowed
access to personal records without the knowledge or permission of the
The study found that the
SIN had become important in data processing and was being used extensively
by the various levels of government and the private sector, both to identify
individuals and as a tool for data linkage, particularly in the administration
of government assistance programs. At the federal level, the greatest
use of the SIN was in areas where there was a legal requirement to provide
the number, such as under the Unemployment Insurance Act, the Canada
Pension Plan and the Income Tax Act. Other programs had adopted
the number to assist in the identification of clients.
The study found that many
federal government programs required the exchange of voluminous amounts
of information for which the SIN was often the identifying link. The SIN
was also being used to link different sets of personal information, and
was thus giving rise to the fear that improper use might endanger personal
privacy, especially in view of the capacity of the computer to store,
process and retrieve large amounts of data with minimum time and effort.
In spite of these findings,
the Privacy Commissioners study found that data linkage was not
as widespread as had been thought. In fact, the SIN was being primarily
used to distinguish individuals with the same name. However, the study
noted that there could be no doubt that the SIN had the potential both
for use as a universal identifier and for data linkage. It was also apparent
that prohibition of the collection and use of the SIN would not eliminate
data-sharing, which could still take place using other identifiers. The
report, therefore, made no recommendation to limit the use of the SIN,
stressing that much more than such regulation would be necessary in order
to prevent the perceived harms.(9)
The report made recommendations
in four key areas. Finding that the privacy of individuals might be threatened
by improper data linkage, it recommended that an offence be included in
the Canadian Criminal Code to prohibit dishonest dealings with
personal data that had been provided to obtain a benefit or service or
under compulsion of law, or had been placed in the custody of another
for storage and the exclusive use of the depositor. The report noted three
advantages in creating such an offence:
It would protect against
undisclosed use or modification of personal information provided by
the individual concerned, it should generate awareness of the need
to protect individual privacy and should result in the taking of new
preventive measures to protect against the commission of the prohibited
The proposal for a new criminal
offence did not address the problem of whether the use of the SIN should
be limited or regulated for reasons not connected with data linkage; for
example, because the use of the number was felt to be impersonal, evoked
memories of prejudice or mass brutality, or violated religious beliefs.
The report, therefore, went on to recommend that the federal government
should make it possible for an individual, on application, to be exempted
from being identified by a SIN or other number in federal information
systems, with a reasonable fee being imposed when such individualized
processing of personal information resulted in a significant increase
The report also recommended
that the federal government study the need for contingency plans to ensure
that banks containing personal data were protected during periods of man-made
or natural disasters.(12)
Finally, the study found
that many individuals did not know that, in many instances, they had the
right to refuse requests for their SIN, or for other personal data. The
report, therefore, recommended that the federal government assume responsibility
for informing members of the public of their rights to informational privacy
and of the need for individuals to assume part of the responsibility for
not releasing personal data arbitrarily.(13)
The federal government did
not act on the reports recommendations.
On 1 July 1983, Parliament
proclaimed the Privacy Act,(14)
which repealed and replaced Part IV of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
The Privacy Act protects the privacy of Canadians with respect
to personal information held by federal government institutions; the SIN
is treated as personal information, as defined in that Act, and receives
the same protection as any other identifier or item of personal information,
neither more nor less.
A number of Private Members
bills have been introduced in the House of Commons respecting the use
of SINs. For instance, between 1980 and 1986, three Conservative Members
of the House of Commons introduced virtually identical bills on this subject,
all of which died on the Order Paper.(15)
The last of those bills, Bill C-236, An Act respecting the use of Social
Insurance Numbers, was introduced in the House of Commons by Mr. Stackhouse
on 21 October 1986.
Like the similar bills,
Bill C-236, had it been enacted into law, would have stipulated that "except
as provided in this or any other Act, no person, organization, group or
body that is not a federal body shall request any person to disclose his
Social Insurance Number."(16)
The bill further stipulated that "except as provided in this or any
other Act, no person is required to disclose his Social Insurance Number."(17)
For purposes of the bill, "federal body" was defined to mean
"any ministry, department, board, commission, person, regulatory
agency, tribunal, advisory council, office or other body exercising or
purporting to exercise jurisdiction or powers conferred by or under any
Act of the Parliament of Canada."(18)
The bill would have provided
that people would be required to disclose their SIN to a federal body
in response to a written request that was accompanied by a statement setting
out a) the particular purpose for which the SIN was requested, and b)
the particular Act that authorized such disclosure.(19)
Written requests from an
organization, group or body for a person to disclose his or her SIN would
have had to be accompanied by a statement setting out the particular purpose
for which the SIN was requested, and advising the person that he or she
had the right to refuse to disclose the SIN. The person could subsequently
have disclosed his or her SIN, or refused to do so.(20)
The bill would also have
provided that the SIN was not to be used for a purpose other than that
for which disclosure was required under the bill or any other federal
Under another provision,
any 20 Members of the House of Commons who were of the opinion that it
was in the public interest to disclose and use the SIN for a purpose not
authorized by law, could have filed a motion with the Speaker for the
consideration of the House. The motion would have been to the effect that
a Special Committee of seven members be appointed to review and report
upon whether the public interest would be best served by the disclosure
and use of the SIN for the specific purpose.(22)
The bill would have further required the House to consider the motion
not later than five sitting days after it had been filed.(23)
The motion would have been deemed to have been adopted by the House at
the normal time of adjournment on the day the motion was taken up and
considered, unless sooner adopted or negatived by the House.(24)
Individuals would have been
permitted to make application to the Federal Court of Canada for a declaratory
judgment, injunction, damages or other remedy if, as a result of lawfully
refusing to disclose their SIN, they had been denied a benefit or had
been threatened with the denial of a benefit to which they were entitled.(25)
Also, people who had disclosed their SIN where such disclosure was not
required by law would still have been eligible for any remedy referred
Finally, the bill would
have made it an offence, punishable on summary conviction and by a fine
not exceeding $1,000, for anyone to:
SIN disclosed pursuant to the bill without that person's consent;
compel or attempt
to compel a person by threat, intimidation or force to disclose
his or her SIN where disclosure was not required by law; or
make use of the
SIN of a person in a manner unauthorized by law.(27)
Another Private Member's
Bill, C-321, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (Social Insurance Number),(28)
was introduced in the House of Commons by the Hon. Robert Kaplan on 14
September 1988, but did not go beyond first reading. In order to protect
the privacy of Canadians, the bill would have limited the use of the SIN
to federal government institutions. The bill would have expressly amended
the Criminal Code to provide that "No person shall require
the disclosure of a Social Insurance Number." However, the above
provision would not have applied to a "government institution,"
which was defined in the bill to mean a government institution as defined
in the Access to Information Act. A person who contravened the
above provision would have been guilty of an offence and would have been
liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment
for a term not exceeding six months, or both. Finally, in any prosecution
for an offence under the provision, it would have been sufficient to establish
that it had been committed by an employee or agent of the accused (whether
or not that employee or agent had been identified or prosecuted) unless
the accused established that the offence had been committed without his
or her knowledge or consent and that he or she had exercised all due diligence
to prevent its commission.
OF COMMONS STANDING COMMITTEE REPORT
In March 1987, the report
of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Solicitor General
on the review of the Access to Information Act and the Privacy
Act(29) was released.
The Committee shared the concerns expressed in Mr. Stackhouses Private
Members Bill C-236 and other similar bills and was of the view that
the SIN should not be employed in ways never intended or authorized by
Parliament. The Committee noted that the Canadian Bar Association, at
its 1986 annual meeting, had passed a resolution on the SIN expressing
"its deep concern over the philosophy of using a compulsory identification
number as a means of tracing or locating persons for purposes other than
income tax, social assistance and pensions, as initially instituted."(30)
The Committee accordingly
recommended that a new section be added to the Privacy Act to limit
the collection and use of SINs to those activities explicitly authorized
by federal Act or regulations. In other cases, there should be a statutory
prohibition against the federal government, the provinces or the private
sector denying services or goods to an individual, because of a refusal
to provide a SIN. The Committee also urged the creation of a statutory
cause of action under the Privacy Act for individuals faced with
Specifically, the Committee
recommended that the Privacy Act be amended as follows:
It shall be unlawful
for any federal, provincial or local government institution or the
private sector to ask any person for his or her Social Insurance Number,
unless such a request is authorized by law.
It shall be unlawful
for any federal, provincial or local government institution or the
private sector to deny to any individual any right, benefit, or privilege
provided by law, because of such individuals refusal to disclose
his or her Social Insurance Number, unless such disclosure is required
by federal statute.
Any federal government
institution which requests an individual to disclose his or her Social
Insurance Number shall inform that individual whether that disclosure
is mandatory or voluntary, by what statutory or other authority such
number is solicited, and what uses will be made of it.(32)
RESPONSE TO COMMITTEE REPORT
In its 15 October 1987 response
to the above report,(33)
the federal government agreed with the Committees concerns over
the growing use of the SIN. It noted that whereas initially the SIN had
been required for the Canada Pension Plan and unemployment insurance,
it was now being required for such other matters as income tax, old age
security, family allowances, excise tax, student loans, and for federal
elections. It was also being used extensively throughout Canada in the
public and private sectors.
The government recognized
that Canadians did not want the SIN to become a universal identification
number, and indicated that it would act to prevent this from happening
by very shortly issuing a policy to:
require all federal
departments and agencies to obtain Treasury Board approval
for any current use of SIN not authorized by statute or regulation;
prohibit the collection
and use of SIN by any federal department and agency for any new administrative
purpose, unless authorized by law;
inform Canadians of
the uses of the SIN which are required by federal statute or
to be informed why the SIN is being requested and whether
or not it is required by law;
require that no right,
benefit or privilege be withheld from and no penalty be imposed
on any individual for refusal to disclose his or her SIN number to
a federal government institution, except where its provision is required
The government indicated
that, it would consider legislation to express these principles in law
in the longer term.(35)
The government also stated
that following action to regulate its own use of the SIN, it would pursue
the application of similar controls throughout the rest of the public
sector and the private sector. This would be part of the governments
negotiations to obtain compliance with guidelines issued by the Organisation
for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to protect privacy and
individual liberties in respect of personal data. The government indicated
that if satisfactory arrangements could not be made it would explore the
legislative alternatives to regulate the collection and use of the SIN;
if necessary, an amendment to the Criminal Code might prohibit
a request for the number unless authorized by law.(36)
The President of the Treasury
Board, the Hon. Pat Carney, on 8 June 1988 announced the governments
intention to restrict the use of the SIN by federal institutions to the
administration of specified tax, pension, social and benefits programs,
and certain federal statutes and regulations. A copy of the press release,
along with attachments showing authorized statutes, regulations and programs,
is included as an Appendix to this paper.
The government-wide review
of the collection and use of the SIN identified the specific federal statutes,
regulations and programs for which such collection and use were permissible.
Existing uses for administrative purposes without statutory authority
were examined by departments and by Treasury Board. As a result of this
review process, many federal uses of the SIN were to be phased out over
a five-year period. Some of the major changes were the discontinuation
of the request for SINs on application forms for citizenship, for credit
checks required for federal programs, and as the principal federal employee
identifier. A list of some of the discontinued uses of the SIN is attached
to the Minister's news release in the Appendix to this paper.
Prior to the federal governments
policy announcement on 8 June 1988, though an individual was not obliged
to meet a request for a SIN for a purpose not authorized by law, he or
she could be deprived of a desired service or benefit for withholding
the number. The Privacy Commissioner had expressed his concern over this
matter in his annual report for 1986-87:
It is small comfort
to tell Canadians that, except in those limited situations authorized
by law, they are not required to provide their SIN, when refusal may
deprive them of a service or benefit. No organization should be able
to deny goods, services, benefits or entitlements for failure to provide
a SIN unless its collection is specifically required by statute. This
principle should apply to both government and the private sector;
it should be enshrined in law.(37)
Since the policy announcement,
however, in the case of federal government institutions at least, no right,
benefit or privilege can be withheld from, and no penalty can be imposed
on any individual for refusal to provide his/her SIN, except where the
SIN is required by statute or, where specified federal government programs
are authorized by Treasury Board under the above policy to continue to
use the SIN. Federal government institutions are also prohibited from
collecting and using the SIN for any new administrative purpose, unless
so authorized by law.
In the absence of federal legislation on
the subject, the above policy continues to apply to the use of the SIN
by federal government institutions.
Canada, House of Commons, Debates, 1979, p. 749.
Globe and Mail (Toronto), 11 February 1980, p. 7.
Bill C-535, An Act to extend the present laws of Canada that protect the
privacy of individuals with a right of access to government files containing
personal information relating to themselves, 1st Session, 32nd
Parliament, 1980. The same bill was introduced in the Senate by Senator
Ontario Commission on Freedom of Information and Individual Privacy, Public
Government for Private People, Report, 1980, Vol. 3, p. 589- 590.
Ibid., p. 771.
Ibid., p. 773.
Canadian Human Rights Commission, Report of the Privacy Commissioner
on the Use of the Social Insurance Number, January 1981.
Ibid., p. 2.
Ibid., p. 3.
Ibid., p. 215.
Ibid., p. 223.
Ibid., p. 224.
Ibid., p. 230.
R.S.C. 1985, c. P-21.
Bill C-537, An Act respecting the use of Social Insurance Numbers, 1st
Session, 32nd Parliament, 2 May 1980 (the Hon. Ramon Hnatyshyn); Bill
C-586, An Act respecting the use of Social Insurance Numbers, 1st Session,
32nd Parliament, 2 May 1980 (Mr. J. Gamble); Bill C-245, An Act respecting
the use of Social Insurance Numbers, 1st Session, 33rd Parliament, 27
June 1985 (Mr. R. Stackhouse); Bill C-236, An Act respecting the use of
Social Insurance Numbers, 2nd Session, 33rd Parliament, 21 October 1986
(Mr. R. Stackhouse).
A subsequent but similar Private Members bill, C-355, An Act respecting
the use of Social Insurance Numbers, 1st Session, 35th Parliament, was
introduced in the House of Commons by Mr. John Finlay on 20 June 1995,
but later died on the Order Paper.
Bill C-236 (2nd Session, 33rd Parliament), s. 3(1).
Ibid., s. 3(2).
Ibid., s. 2.
Ibid., 3. 4.
Ibid., s. 5.
Ibid., s. 6.
Ibid., s. 7(1).
Ibid., s. 7(2).
Ibid., s. 7(3).
Ibid., s. 8(1).
Ibid., s. 8(2).
Ibid., s. 9.
Bill C-321, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (Social Insurance Number),
2nd Session, 33rd Parliament, 14 September 1988 (the Hon. Robert Kaplan).
Canada, House of Commons, Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs,
Report, "Open and Shut: Enhancing the Right to Know and the
Right to Privacy," March 1987.
Canadian Bar Association, National (September 1986), 1986 Annual
Meeting, Resolution No. 2.
Ibid., p. 46.
Government of Canada, Access and Privacy: The Steps Ahead, Response
to the Parliamentary Committee Report on Access to Information and Privacy,
Ibid., p. 6.
Ibid., p. 7.
Privacy Commissioner, Annual Report, 1986-87, p. 20.