News that the Harper government has nominated a new federal privacy commissioner is sending shock waves through the Canadian privacy community. But the buzz isn’t over the fact that former Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart’s replacement has been found; rather, it’s over the fact that no one in the privacy world has ever heard of the newly nominated-for-appointment Daniel Therrien—and what they have heard doesn’t sound good if the end-goal is the protection of Canadians' privacy rights.

What is known about Therrien is that he’s been a lawyer at the Department of Justice (DOJ) for more than 20 years. His current title is assistant deputy attorney general, public safety, defence and immigration portfolio. And in the midst of an increasing push by the government for surveillance powers and law enforcement access to Canadians’ data—a la bills like the highly controversial C-13 and now-dead-in-the-water C-30—a lawyer who’s worked on helping the DOJ achieve those aims isn’t exactly who privacy advocates had in mind as the chief defender of privacy rights.

In fact, NDP Leader Thomas Mulclair has outright told the Harper government that Therrien has “neither the neutrality nor the necessary detachment to hold this position,” CBC reports, and has asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reconsider the nomination, which, by mandate of the Privacy Act, the House of Commons and the Senate must approve.

I think this fits in with a now established pattern of our Prime Minister. Namely—carry out the agenda that the government wants to, without real regards to tradition or, in some cases, constitutional requirements.

Ian Kerr

Outgoing Privacy Commissioner of Ontario Ann Cavoukian told The Privacy Advisor the nomination certainly comes as a surprise to the privacy community.

“He’s not known to the privacy community in Canada,” she said. “And, it would seem that nominating the assistant deputy general for public safety and defence may not be the best fit. On the face of it, looking at someone whose expertise is in public safety and defence would seem the antithesis of the expertise you’d seek for privacy commissioner.”

Ian Kerr, Canada research chair in Ethics, Law and Technology at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law, is as surprised as Cavoukian with the choice and wonders what it indicates is to come from the government.

“Previously, the traditional approach had been to recruit people who were already well known and respected subject matter experts in the field of privacy,” he said. “If you look, for example, at our current and recent privacy commissioners in the main jurisdictions—Elizabeth Denham, Jill Clayton, Jennifer Stoddart—all of those people became appointed privacy commissioners as long-standing experts within the privacy community.”

Why choose someone without any real privacy background and mostly unknown to the community, Kerr wondered?

“Let alone selecting a person who is, on paper, the proverbial fox-in-the-hen-house, is a bold move that stands out as illogical and inexplicable—especially in light of the fact that there are so many obviously qualified people whose careers have been built on protecting, not diminishing privacy,” he said. “The appointment is potentially quite alarming.”

To be clear, Therrien is surely highly skilled and has considerable expertise in his area, Cavoukian said.

 He’s not known to the privacy community in Canada. It would seem that nominating the assistant deputy general for public safety and defense may not be the best fit. On the face of it, looking at someone whose expertise is in public safety and defense would seem the antithesis of the expertise you’d seek for privacy commissioner.

Ann Cavoukian

“But I guess what I’m questioning is whether one can assume from that that he will have the necessary privacy expertise and digital expertise in terms of data protection and ubiquitous computing,” she said.

Former Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner Frank Work said he’s willing to give Therrien the benefit of the doubt.

“I don’t want to say Monsieur Therrien cannot do the job or should not do the job, because I think with his credentials he’s capable of doing the job,” Work said.

Therrien’s history in the justice department required of him some promises to be impartial, after all, he added. But Work echoed his peers’ concerns that a history in law enforcement rightly raises some concerns.

“Public safety initiatives tend to consume large amounts of personal information, and public safety officials are notoriously not in favor of transparency or accountability,” he said. “So here’s someone who’s done a lot of work in the area of public safety, in negotiating information-sharing agreements with the U.S., who’s now going to be the oversight of that kind of activity. So you have to be a little concerned about that.”

At the very least, Work said, you have to wonder whether he’s going to be able to make the transition. Further, Work said, it’s too bad Therrien doesn’t have more experience in the private sector.

Cavoukian is well aware just how much expertise a commissioner needs to be effective. “The technical area is huge and deep, and it’s a challenge to stay on top of it all,” she said, and that’s as someone who’s been immersed in privacy and data protection for the last 15 years.

More puzzling to her is why Therrien would be chosen amongst what was surely a healthy pool of highly qualified candidates.

The process itself was not transparent in terms of who made the short list, however. The Harper government did not respond to The Privacy Advisor’s request for comment by the time this story published.

Kerr said that in many ways, the story of this nomination is much less about the career qualifications of the nominee and much more about the process and the approach of the Canadian government.

“I say this because I think this fits in with a now established pattern of our Prime Minister,” he said. “Namely—carry out the agenda that the government wants to, without real regards to tradition or, in some cases, constitutional requirements.”

Concurring with what the leader of the opposition wrote in his aforementioned letter to the Prime Minister, Kerr added, if Therrien becomes the privacy commissioner, he will be “required to make decisions about some of the very legal frameworks and policy choices that he himself participated in the creation of in his prior role … This is highly problematic on a number of different levels.”

Tamir Israel, a staff lawyer at the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Policy & Public Interest Clinic, said he’s not so worried about the fact that Therrien isn’t a privacy expert yet. Over time, people can pick up the specialized skill set required to do data protection. And besides, maybe the fact that Therrien is coming at this from a public safety background will give him a nuanced perspective on privacy that those steeped in it wouldn’t necessarily have.

More concerning to him is the fact that Canada is facing some pretty big privacy challenges right now, and there’s not necessarily time to train someone green.

“An ideal candidate could keep up and start rolling without taking a year to get up-to-speed on the specific nuances on a lot of these issues,” Israel said. “Data protection is very specialized, it’s a very specialized set of legal and policy norms that requires technical know-how, and I think that takes time to build.”

Additionally, the nomination process is going to take some time, and Interim Commissioner Chantal Bernier is now something of a lame duck, lacking a mandate, meaning there’s an important voice missing in the ongoing debate.

What about Interim Commissioner Chantal Bernier, Cavoukian asked?

“You already have had an excellent candidate for more than a year, doing an outstanding job,” she said. “That’s what troubled me personally, that instead of considering seriously someone who had been doing the job on an interim basis and doing an excellent job—that she would not be considered.”

Editor's Note: This story was updated on May 30 to add the comments of former Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner Frank Work.

Written By

Angelique Carson, CIPP/US


If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.


Board of Directors

See the esteemed group of leaders shaping the future of the IAPP.

Contact Us

Need someone to talk to? We’re here for you.

IAPP Staff

Looking for someone specific? Visit the staff directory.

Learn more about the IAPP»

Daily Dashboard

The day’s top stories from around the world

Privacy Perspectives

Where the real conversations in privacy happen

The Privacy Advisor

Original reporting and feature articles on the latest privacy developments

Privacy Tracker

Alerts and legal analysis of legislative trends

Privacy Tech

Exploring the technology of privacy

Canada Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top Canadian privacy news

Europe Data Protection Digest

A roundup of the top European data protection news

Asia-Pacific Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from the Asia-Pacific region

Latin America Dashboard Digest

A roundup of the top privacy news from Latin America

IAPP Westin Research Center

Original works. Groundbreaking research. Emerging scholars.

Get more News »

IAPP Communities

Meet locally with other privacy pros, dive deep into a specialized topic or simply share a common interest, IAPP Communities are for you.

IAPP Job Board

Looking for a new challenge, or need to hire your next privacy pro? The IAPP Job Board is the answer.

Join the Privacy List

Have ideas? Need advice? Subscribe to the Privacy List. It’s crowdsourcing, with an exceptional crowd.

Find more ways to Connect »

Find a Privacy Training Class

Two-day privacy training classes are held around the world. See the complete schedule now.

NEW! Raise Staff Awareness

Equip all your data-handling staff to reduce privacy risk, with Privacy Core™ e-learning essentials.

Online Privacy Training

Build your knowledge. The privacy know-how you need is just a click away.

The Training Post—Can’t-Miss Training Updates

Subscribe now to get the latest alerts on training opportunities around the world.

Upcoming Web Conferences

See our list of upcoming web conferences. Just log on, listen in and learn!

Train Your Team

Get your team up to speed on privacy by bringing IAPP training to your organization.

Learn more »

CIPP Certification

The global standard for the go-to person for privacy laws, regulations and frameworks

CIPM Certification

The first and only privacy certification for professionals who manage day-to-day operations

CIPT Certification

The industry benchmark for IT professionals worldwide to validate their knowledge of privacy requirements

NEW! FIP Designation

Recognizing the advanced knowledge and issue-spotting skills a privacy pro must attain in today’s complex world of data privacy.

Certify Your Staff

Find out how you can bring the world’s only globally recognized privacy certification to a group in your organization.

Learn more about IAPP certification »

Get Schooled in Privacy

Looking to get some higher-ed in privacy? Check out these schools that include data privacy courses in their curricula.

Privacy Vendor List

Find a privacy vendor to meet your needs with our filterable list of global service providers.

NEW! Raise Staff Awareness

Equip all your data-handling staff to reduce privacy risk, with Privacy Core™ e-learning essentials.

The Industry of Privacy

Take stock, compare your practices to those of other organizations, and get budget with these studies on the industry of privacy.

More Resources »

Time to Get to Work at the Congress

Thought leadership, a thriving community and unrivaled education...the Congress prepares you for the challenges ahead. Register today.

GDPR Comprehensive London

Our third and final GDPR Comprehensive 2016 was a great success. London delegates spent two full days with world-recognized experts taking a guided tour of the GDPR.

Call for Speakers at Summit 2017

Are you an engaging speaker with privacy expertise to share? We want you! Submit a proposal today! The Call for Speakers closes Oct. 2, 2016.

GDPR's Top Impacts - Webcon Delivered in French

Rejoignez des experts pour en savoir plus : Les 10 conséquences pratiques les plus importantes du RGPD. S’inscrire maintenant.

Intensive Education at the Practical Privacy Series

The Series is returning to DC, this year spotlighting Data Breach, FTC and Consumer Privacy, GDPR and Government privacy issues. It’s the education you need now!

Sponsor an Event

Increase visibility for your organization—check out sponsorship opportunities today.

More Conferences »

Become a Member

Start taking advantage of the many IAPP member benefits today

Corporate Members

See our list of high-profile corporate members—and find out why you should become one, too

Renew Your Membership

Don’t miss out for a minute—continue accessing your benefits

Join the IAPP»