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Including names on municipal maps – can the complicated be made simple?

February 22, 2021 - Diane Aldridge, Executive Director of Compliance

I grew up on a farm and know how isolated you are out there. Most neighbors are out of eyeshot and earshot and though some know when you are away, you hope it isn’t common knowledge as you most likely will end up with something stolen from your property, gas being one of the most coveted items.

The reason I bring this up, is that recently, our office hosted a number of webinars on the application of The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (LA FOIP) and the topic of access to municipal maps of a municipality came up. And, what is interesting, is that almost everyone seems to be using them for different purposes and none are sure whether or not to include names on them. For example, one informed me that, “[o]ur RM Maps have been available for purchase by the public prior to 1993. They were typically purchased for assessment information, landowner name information, roads and lakes in the area.” I was also told hunters are interested in the information as they need to seek consent from the owner so are not breaking trespassing laws.

In reviewing one of these maps, I noticed that in some cases, the name is that of a business, not a person. In assessing risks to privacy, you always need to start with the question, “is there personal information involved about an identifiable individual?” A business or company, although having an interest in confidentiality, has no privacy protection under LA FOIP. What property a person owns or where a specific person lives, I would expect to be personal information pursuant to subsections 23(1)(e) and 23(1)(j) of LA FOIP. A home address/location is arguably more sensitive.

As soon as you have determined that you have personal information, then you need to know what your authority is to have collected it, use it internally and disclosed it to others. Based on the questions I received, I don’t think this has been well established. For example, are you required to prepare these maps because of a provision in another law or are the maps assembled primarily for the municipalities’ internal purposes? Section 24 of LA FOIP, allows for collection of personal information if it relates to an existing or proposed program or activity of the local authority.

If you are using the information on the map for the same purpose that it was originally obtained or the use is consistent with that purpose, then you probably have authority to use it. However, disclosure to external individuals is a different matter, especially if the reasons external parties want it varies.

If you are looking for authority to disclose personal information to a third party, you need to see if any provisions in subsection 28(2) of LA FOIP, section 10 of the LA FOIP Regulations or another law applies. If you can’t find the authority, then maybe you don’t have authority to disclose it and doing so would result in a privacy breach.

The analysis doesn’t end there. I’m assuming that there are old maps and as details change (i.e. owners, assessed values), the maps are updated. How far back does the practice of collecting and assembling these maps go? And, how were they made available? Did the practices change over time? Why is that important?

Consider whether sections 3 or 4 of LA FOIP would have any application. If the municipality has always made this type of information available for purchase or has historically made it readily available to others outside the municipality, then it could be argued that LA FOIP privacy provisions do not apply. Over the years, though I think it is reasonable to conclude that practices have shifted in terms of who seeks what information and why and how it is made accessible. For example, if in the old days the map was simply tacked to a wall that you could only see if you walked into the office, access was restricted, so not really publicly available. Now, everyone wants access to the information on websites or platforms that can readily be mined and used to create dossiers on individuals. When information is collected for one purpose, but used for another unrelated purpose, we call that function creep. It is a practice to be avoided.

It has been suggested to me that because information may be available from the assessment/tax roll, that it could be available for other purposes at other times. Subsection 213(1) of The Municipalities Act clearly limits when and how access to that information is provided and is for a specific purpose. Opening it for other purposes might not be found to be appropriate if not for a consistent purpose. This however has not been tested to my knowledge.

Finally, in terms of what else is open for public inspection, I note the list in subsection 117(1) of The Municipalities Act does not include municipal maps.

I’ve been told there isn’t a specific address on the map, but the map is after all a map. If there is a little square on the location, that is where the person most likely lives. The mailing address for my parents is less sensitive than this little square on the map with their name beside it because it is a box number in town.

I’ve heard some people want their names removed, so clearly some are concerned about this type of information being publicly available. And, I think from what we saw in the news recently with protestors outside our provincial Chief Medical Health Officer’s family home, finding out where someone lives can be used for unintended purposes.

Even after all this, if you decide that including personal information on municipal maps is the way to go for your municipality, remember, if a complaint comes to our office, you will have to be demonstrate how you arrived at the conclusion that releasing it is authorized and by what legal instrument(s).

And, after all, I am informed that much of what is accessible on the municipal maps is already available from other sources. If individuals are motivated enough, they can seek the information they need for their own purposes, whether it be from land titles or other sources. I propose that instead of navigating all of the above, if after deciding these maps are still worth the effort, maybe consider a new practice; asking individuals if they want their names on the map or not. Consent, after all, is the gold standard and simplifies everything.

Alternatively, the best and safest practice would be to produce the maps without any individual names. Company names could be included, but why not publish the maps with no owner’s names.  Also, publish the maps with the least amount of additional information. For example, is it necessary to indicate there is a residence on a particular quarter of land? I leave that up to you to decide.


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