INTERNET – INVASION OF PRIVACY? (December 12/97)

The young soldier-to-be signed the “attestation paper” signifying he was willing to serve overseas in the Canadian Expeditionary Force for one year or as long as the war between Great Britain and Germany lasted. By signing he swore he would be “faithful and bear true allegiance” to King George the Fifth. The date on the document was February 5, 1916. The First World War was just over two years old when he enlisted at Kentville. He was 22 at the time.

It’s difficult to explain how I felt when the computer screen brought up the enlistment papers my father had filled out and signed when joining the Army 81 years ago. At first I was surprised and amazed that I could find his war records. It was a bit eerie looking at his handwriting and a detailed physical description.

I was even more amazed – you could say thunderstruck – upon discovering that the First World War records of over 600,000 Canadians soldiers are on the Internet. With a simple keyboard entry, a few clicks of the mouse, the personnel files of the National Archives are there for anyone to read. Once you know your way around the Internet, finding a relative or anyone who served in the war and looking at their personal records is as easy as typing a name.

What is surprising is that the information I discovered on the Internet appears to breach the Privacy Act. Under the stipulation of the Privacy Act, access to service records or release of personal information about individuals is not permitted without the written consent of the individual concerned. If an individual is deceased, only members of his immediate family can obtain his service records.

Write the National Archives of Canada and what I’ve spelled out above about the Privacy Act is exactly what they will tell you. With the onset of the Internet, however, it appears that the Privacy Act no longer applies. The records of some 600,000 Canadians soldiers, which are now available worldwide to anyone with a computer, indicates this must be the case.

I don’t know how you feel about this or even if it is something we should be concerned about. While there appears to be nothing sinister and such easy access to Internet information may be welcomed by many, it does hint at what the future could be like. Two years ago when I hooked up to the Internet I accessed business sites without reminders that any personal information I might transmit was available to anyone with a computer. Nowadays I am constantly reminded that there are computer crooks out there and it isn’t wise to email bank account or charge card numbers. The Internet may seem perfectly safe but it isn’t. And you can expect to read more about computer crime as use of the Internet becomes more widely spread.

Getting back to the records of Canadian soldiers being on the Internet, I mentioned that this type of information would be appreciated by some. I’m sure anyone doing genealogical research will eventually find those 600,000 plus war records helpful. And undoubtedly this is one of the reasons, and perhaps the only reason, the National Archives made this information easy to obtain.

However, I still wonder if the Privacy Act has been ignored or if the Act even exists anymore. Perhaps the wildfire spread of the Internet has made it obsolete.

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