The Importance of Easily Accessing Your Personal Information

Using Canadian commercial privacy legislation, PIPEDA, Canadians can learn what information their telecommunications companies hold about them, for how long, for what purposes, and when they disclose that information. In effect, the law empowers Canadians to understand how telecom companies manage the personal information entrusted to them and then make informed decisions about whether they want to maintain that commercial relationship.

However, enforcing these rights can be challenging. In recent months, organizations such as the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, have worked to help Canadians more easily send letters that compel service providers to disclose the information that they retain about individuals. Other initiatives, such as the Canadian Access to Social Media Information (CATSMI) project, have helped Canadians file similar requests to major social media companies.

Both the Citizen Lab’s and CATSMI project’s efforts, however, required individuals to copy, paste, and manually complete the letters requesting personal information. A new tool that the Citizen Lab has created in collaboration with the Digital Stewardship Initiative, Access My Info (AMI), makes it easier for Canadians to quickly file requests to Canadian data operators, with telecommunications service providers being the initial supported category of operator.

AMI is important for individual Canadians and for the public as a whole. For individuals, AMI:

  • enables Canadians to exercise existing laws by leveraging contemporary technologies. It’s not always the case that new legislation is needed for the digital era; sometime tools just need to be built to improve the utility and accessibility of existing laws.
  • empowers Canadians to better understand how their personal information is managed and collected. Citizens of Canada demonstrably care about their privacy but often rely on others — academics, government officials, non-profits — to explain how their information is managed and whether their privacy at risk. AMI lets Canadians take control by requesting their own personal information and coming to their own conclusions about the appropriateness of telecommunications service providers’ practices.
  • lets Canadians to repurpose the tool to build their own requests to other businesses and industries. AMI is open source software, released under the Apache 2.0 license, and available on github.

In addition to empowering individual Canadians, AMI serves a set of community goods.

First, the Canadian public generally has no idea how long information is retained by telecommunications carriers. As a result, its members cannot agitate for better privacy practices, fully understand how much ‘digital exhaust’ is generated by us each day, or choose companies with preferable privacy practices. By requesting access to our personal information and then disclosing findings back to the broader community we can all improve our awareness of privacy-protective telecommunications companies.

Second, AMI lets Canadians, parliamentarians, and privacy commissioners understand how laws granting access to personal information actually operate in a digital era. Only by filing requests using platforms like AMI can we understand how companies can comply with personal information requests at scale, and whether existing access to personal information laws need updating or revision.

Third, while AMI is currently developed to issue requests to members of the telecommunications sector it is easily repurposed for issuing requests to other industries. In its existing configuration, AMI will let the telecommunications sector demonstrate its compliance with Canadian law. However, the very existence of the platform combined with public awareness that other sectors could be tested may increase general awareness, attentiveness, and care in how companies collect, handle, and process Canadians’ personal information.

In essence, AMI empowers individuals and the citizenry more generally to understand how, why, and for what reasons their information is collected, processed, and disclosed to other parties. It enables Canadians to understand, at least partially, how their own personal information is caught up in an intense ‘information ecology’. And it reveals the kinds of ‘digital exhaust’ that are retained, collected, and processed by our most important communications partners, our telecommunications carriers. Using AMI helps both individual Canadians and the population as a whole. We hope you’ll use it and share any feedback you have about either the tool or the responses that you receive.

Check out Access my Info, over at