Education minister contravened FOIP, says privacy officer
Alberta Education contravened the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) when it used teachers’ personal e-mail addresses to distribute a message from Education Minister Jeff Johnson, according to a ruling by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta.
Veronica Chodak, senior information and privacy manager, ruled that on February 6, 2013, the ministry improperly used a list of more than 34,000 e-mail addresses obtained from the Alberta Teacher Registry System.
Teachers’ addresses were gathered by the registrar specifically for professional accreditation, and the application form stated that they would be used for only that purpose.
The investigation found that Johnson’s staff, at his request, sent out the mass e-mail using a commercial service called Mailout Interactive. Some teachers received the message at their work e-mail addresses, but many received it at their personal e-mail addresses.
The ministry claimed that it had the right within FOIP to use the list for three reasons: to issue and administer qualification certificates; to establish and maintain the registry; and to conduct statistical, evaluative and financial analyses and forecasting related to teachers. Discounting the fact that the third category was not the stated reason for collecting the addresses, the ruling noted, nothing in the content of the e-mail itself met the three stated uses.
Even if a connection to the stated purpose had been found, the use of the e-mails did "not meet the additional requirement to be ‘necessary for performing the statutory duties’" of the minister and his department, Chodak found. The minister could have used other means to get teachers’ attention, she said, and the fact that more than 10,000 teachers weren’t contacted at all because they didn’t have e-mail also raises the question of why sending the e-mail was necessary.
The privacy manager has recommended that the department remove personal e-mail addresses from the provided list, state in future mass mails specifically why teachers are being contacted, provide instructions to schools to avoid the release of personal e-mail addresses and update registration documentation by stating other potential uses of collected addresses.
Johnson said his department would comply. "We have cooperated with the Privacy Commissioner and are reviewing the ruling to ensure Alberta Education is in full compliance moving forward. As the ministry is both the registrar and regulator of the teaching profession we will work with the Privacy Commissioner to ensure we develop a method of communicating on professional matters that reaches as many teachers as possible while also respecting the commissioner’s ruling."
Johnson said that it’s critical for him to "have a direct and open dialogue" with teachers and that he will continue to do so using e-mail. “I believe teachers deserve to hear from me directly about issues and developments that may affect them.”
The department will find a way to work around using personal e-mail addresses, as some teachers do not have available work e-mail addresses, he said. “They deserve to receive the same information provided to their colleagues. That being said, we’ll implement the commissioner’s recommendations and come to a solution.”
The ruling came just days after Johnson asked the province’s school boards to release all data to him concerning teacher conduct collected over the last 10 years. Johnson demanded the information within 15 days of his June 26 letter. The ATA has asked the privacy commissioner’s office to rule on whether the request is reasonable, saying that releasing this information would once again risk exposing vast quantities of private information to the minister (see “ATA did not ask minister to request teacher information from school boards”).
The ruling is published on the website of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta. ❚