How Does our Office Keep you Anonymous?
The Commissioner publicly posts review and investigation reports regarding a variety of matters involving applicants and complainants. As much as possible, our office tries to conceal their identities. Our office also recognizes that there are times when it is warranted to conceal the identity of someone other than an applicant or a complainant.
De-identification is the process of editing or removing personal information from a record. De-identification reduces the likelihood that a person will be identified or made known. Information is de-identified if: 1) a person’s identity is not revealed; or 2) if it is not reasonably foreseeable that information, either alone or in combination with other information, could reveal a person’s identity.
Personal information is either directly identifying (e.g., name, home address or telephone number) or indirectly identifying (e.g., use of descriptors such as gender, race, postal code, or profession). While direct identifiers openly disclose or make it easier to conclude an identity, indirect identifiers, given their nature and circumstances, can also lead to openly identifying someone. For example, disclosing that a matter involves a male doctor in a town of 1,000 people can more openly reveal his identity than if he was a male doctor in a city of 200,000 people – it’s in the details.
Obviously, the process of de-identifying information involves removing names, but it may also mean removing or editing information that allows readers to draw linkages to an identity. The following are some ways in which our office attempts to reduce such linkages in reports:
- We mostly use the third-person plural “they”, which traditionally refers to groups of two or more people. Grammar purists may not agree with using the plural form “they” when discussing a singular person, but the use of “they” can be used when who you are referring to isn’t important or isn’t the focus. Using the term “they” in our reports then allows us to pull focus away from who is being discussed, thereby reducing the likelihood that a person can be identified.
- We try to edit names of communities, organizations, etc., if such information can be combined with other information to lead to a person’s identity. This is sometimes the case in situations involving well-known events or events of a sensitive nature that occur in a certain place. Or, in the case of the male doctor above, where saying he is from Grenfell can more directly identify him than if he practiced in Saskatoon.
- We sometimes remove sensitive information or details if a matter is well known or highly publicized, or if that information has the potential to cause embarrassment for someone or to re-traumatize them. For example, rather than state the type of offence committed against someone, we may just state that there was an offence committed.
These are just a few ways in which we may bring anonymity to our reports, particularly for applicants and complainants. You will see in our reports, though, that at times we leave in identifying information such as names of public employees or civil servants. Such information is not typically considered personal information or personally identifying if it’s used in a professional or business context. We may remove such information, however, if leaving it in could lead to the identity of an applicant or complainant, or if we determine it is not relevant to the matter.
Determining which information to exclude from a report can be very subjective. The process requires us to balance all the factors and circumstances of a matter while ensuring that we do not mispresent any facts. It’s part of our office’s responsibility to protect a person’s identity when warranted while at the same time being factual and unbiased. The last thing our office wants to do, though, is inadvertently disclose an identity that should remain anonymous, and so we err on the side of caution.