This guide provides an overview of privacy and freedom of information laws, and is split into three parts. The first section targets researchers studying privacy generally, the second looks at freedom of information laws more specifically, and the third includes practical information on how to make an Access to Information / Freedom of Information request. Contact Julie Lavigne, Legal Studies Librarian, for online or telephone consultations.
This section talks about privacy as a legal concept.
Privacy is a fundamental right that protects you as an individual, and public institutions generally have to follow certain rules when collecting personal information about you. The Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged a right to privacy as early as 1984, stating it to be "the right to be let alone by other people ... to be secure against encroachment upon the citizens' reasonable expectation of privacy in a free and democratic society" ( 2 SCR 145 at 159, citing 389 US 347 (1967)).
Start your search by looking for books and articles, both in print and online, on the Library's main page. Search using keywords. Once you have your results, click on "Books" on the left-hand side of the screen in order to view just the books and e-books, or click on "Peer-Reviewed Journals" as well as "Articles" to see just academic journal articles.
Some books to help you get started:
- Understanding Privacy by Daniel J Solove (2008)
- Privacy Revisited: a global perspective on the right to be left alone by Ronald J Krotoszynski (2016)
- Privacy Rights in the Global Digital Economy: Legal Problems and Canadian Paths to Justice by Lesley A Jacobs et al (2014)
- Canada's Federal Privacy Laws (Library of Parliament Research Publications)
- Library of Parliament publications (search for papers on privacy and privacy law)
- Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
- Summary of privacy laws in Canada (Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada)
- Your privacy rights (Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario)
- privacy international (promoting the human right of privacy around the world)
- Office of Privacy and Civil Liberties (US)
- Rules for the protection of personal data inside and outside the EU
- Data governance, privacy, and digital security (OECD)
- European Digital Rights
- Digital Shred: Privacy Literacy Toolkit (Penn State, US)
- Library Freedom Project (US-based)
- Electronic Frontier Foundation
This section provides an overview of resources you can use to research the rules regulating the collection of your personal information.
Canada has three main laws governing privacy and the protection of personal information:
- the Access to Information Act gives Canadians the right to access government records under certain conditions;
- the Privacy Act provides Canadians with a right to access the information that the federal government holds on them; and,
- the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) sets out the rules by which personal information must be collected, used, or disclosed for commercial purposes.
PIPEDA applies to federally-regulated organizations (eg, banks, airlines) as well as to all private-sector businesses operating in every territory or province except British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec (who have their own, similar laws).
Each province and territory has its own freedom of information legislation, and some additionally have a separate act governing privacy. Ontario, for example, has the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which gives an individual the right to access any record held by a provincially-regulated public institution, as well as the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which also provides access to information for individuals at the municipal level.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has a list of all provincial and territorial privacy laws and oversight.
- Ottawa: Access to Information and Privacy
- Montreal: Access to Information
- Toronto: How to Access City Information
- Vancouver: Freedom of Information Requests and Released Information
- FreedomInfo.org (global network of FOI advocates)
- Office of the Australian Information Commissioner
- Information Commissioner's Office (UK)
- Office of Information Policy (US)
- National Security Archive (information on US government freedom of information requests, maintained by George Washington University)
At the federal level, requests by an individual to access information are made via the filing of an ATIP (Access to Information and Privacy) request under the federal Privacy or Access to Information Acts (see section above).
The provincial/territorial equivalent of an ATIP request is a FOI (Freedom of Information) request. In Ontario, the governing legislation is FIPPA or MFIPPA (see section above).
As a general rule, ATI and FOI requests are used to access federal or provincial government records, whereas Privacy Act requests are used to access information held about you by the federal or provincial government.
Before placing a federal ATI request, read this information on ATI requests from the Treasury Board Secretariat, which will help you to determine who holds what information and what you can expect to receive in response. Also check out these FAQs. Finally, first consult the Completed ATI Requests dataset to find summaries of previously-made requests - you can obtain copies of these records at no cost.
- Access to Information and Personal Information Request Service (for both ATI and Privacy Act requests)
- Find Public Records: Federal ATI Requests and Legal Information (from University of King's College, which includes a good flowchart on ATI and Privacy Act requests)
- How to make a Freedom of Information (FOI) request (UK)
- FOIA.gov (US)
- Effective FOIA requesting for everyone (US)
- CIA FOIA requests (US)
- FBI: Freedom of Information / Privacy Act (US)
- Freedom of Information (European Commission)