Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


A Privacy-Openness Tradeoff

In “Adoptees File Human Rights Complaint Against Canadian Privacy Commissioner,” reports on a dispute between the parents and children, mediated by the state:

A group of Ontario adoptees has filed a human rights complaint against Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian after she lobbied the province to amend its proposed adoption disclosure law with a clause allowing people to keep their records sealed. By calling for a veto, Cavoukian “is trying to say that we do not have an automatic right to our birth registration information,” said Wendy Rowney of the Coalition for Open Adoption Records.

I find this interesting first because of the human dramas it represents, of people wanting to know about their heritage, and the conflict with parents who make a mistake, choose to bear a child, but want no part of raising that child. (There’s also an interesting tie to Roe v. Wade, which you may recall was based on a woman’s right to privacy.)

The second thing that makes this interesting is that its an outgrowth of the government collection of data. Before the growth of centralized records, a baby ‘left on the church steps’ could be truly anonymous. There were no records to be had, except possibly in people’s memories. If a family was wealthy enough to send a daughter some distance, she could go under an assumed name, and return, and perhaps get on with her life.

These multiple person privacy issues are extremely hard. A related example is what happens if a sibling gets a genetic test? A great deal about me can be inferred. Should I have a data protection right in that test result? What if two siblings get tested, and the data holder starts performing family inferences?

2 comments on "A Privacy-Openness Tradeoff"

  • A Privacy-Openness Tradeoff

    [Source: Emergent Chaos: Musings from Adam Shostack on security, privacy, and economics] quoted: A group of Ontario adoptees has filed a human rights complaint against Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian after she lobbied the province to amend its propo…

  • Stephanie says:

    What you’re saying would make sense – if it were true. Before a 1927 law was passed in Ontario adoption records were open to the public, the 1927 law sealed the records. Look up the history and you’ll discover it wasn’t “birth mothers” lobbying for sealed records, it was adoption societies supposedly concerned that if the records weren’t sealed people would discover a child’s “illegitimacy” and there was an attitude that the “unwed mother” should atone for her “sin” by losing her child. There was usually no government, family or societal support offered to make it possible to raise a child and yes many teenage girls and young women were sent away to homes for unwed mothers and not necessarily by choice. And of course adopted people were never consulted about sealed records and adopted people have a human right to know their origins.
    The privacy argument doesn’t wash. In Ontario up until 1965 or 1970 depending on the place, the maiden name of the “birth mother” appears on adoption orders and even today adopted people can get their adoption orders and if they were born before 1970 they can get their first mother’s maiden name. From 1970 on they get the first initial of the mother’s maiden name, followed by a serial number.
    You’re also assuming the women and girls who bore children see their now adult sons and daughters as a mistake. Is that true? In jurisdictions with open adoption records (not to be confused with open adoption, it’s about opening disclosure of information related to adoption to affected parties only), something like 95 to 97 per cent of mothers want to know how their adult sons and daughters have fared.
    I think if you do some research into past adoption practices in North America you’ll find out that for the girls and women who lost their babies and young children adoption was hardly a choice, in most instances they were forced into losing their children and signing away parental rights. Now that their sons and daughters are adults both parties should have the right to freely decide if they want a relationship without the government controlling the release of original birth certificates and birth registrations.
    There are countries where such information isn’t sealed. In Scotland, Israel, France, the Netherlands, England, just to a name a few jurisdictions, adopted people can have their original birth certificates. Besides, isn’t the mother’s identity also the adopted son or daughter’s personal information? How can anyone justify anonymity when a lack of medical information, for instance, affects not only their own son or daughter but also future generations? And what about the adopted person’s right to know their natural father or siblings, natural grandparents and other relatives?
    Privacy arguments rarely have anything to do with real concern about so-called “birth mother” privacy. They’re usually about vested interests ensuring certain information never gets out. There are probably a number of men who have fathered children who don’t want that “secret” out of the bag and some adoptive parents who erroneously fear “birth mothers” reclaiming sons and daughters. The few women who want their names hidden need counselling and plenty of warning before their identities are revealed. But I don’t see how anyone can justify a situation where adopted people are the only people without an inherent right to know who gave birth to them. The fake birth certificates that replaced adoptees’ original birth certificates are legal fiction – their adoptive parents did not give birth to them. In many parts of the world the adopted person’s right to identity trumps any right of a natural parent to keep their own identity a secret. And privacy laws weren’t written to address adoption disclosure.

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