Friday, August 29, 2008

Calgary privacy

Rental Housing and Privacy

It's time for me to search for a new place to rent, and once again the quality of the landlords is a mixed bag. One problem I've had with some landlords over the years is their tendency to demand rather intimate personal information for the purposes of vetting their prospective tenants.

The first piece of personal information that I take issue with is the social insurance number. SINs are not necessary to facilitate a credit check; name and date of birth are sufficient. There are very few organizations that are legally required to use the SIN. If it doesn't involve your employer, your banker, or the CRA, generally speaking you don't need to give it out.

The second identification number that I won't divulge is my driver's license number. First of all, my driver's license is supposed to identify me as an operator of a motor vehicle. As far as I'm concerned, any other use of the number is not reasonable (note that I am talking about the actual ID number on the license, not the license itself). Second, even with that number, what can a landlord legitimately do with it? Privacy laws do not permit the government to just go around and divulge information to whomever walks in the door brandishing somebody's driver's license number. The landlord could provide it to the police in the event of an incident, but he could also provide it to all kinds of unknown third parties at any time. I would argue that there are many more illegitimate activities that can be performed with somebody's driver's license number than legitimate activities.

I would suggest that it's far more risky to the tenant to disclose such information to a landlord than it is for the landlord to rent to that tenant. The other day, when I refused to provide my SIN and driver's license number, the property manager looked at me incredulously and exclaimed, "But this is a $400,000 house! The owners need to protect themselves!"

That might be true, but I need to protect myself. As far as I'm concerned, my identity is worth more to me than $400,000.

I love how the landlord expects the tenants to provide all of this information, yet the landlord is a complete stranger. I find it amusing that owning a rental property supposedly makes this person a trustworthy citizen of good standing. The landlord doesn't trust me, so he wants my SIN and driver's license numbers. However, I'm just supposed to accept at face value that the landlord will properly use and safeguard that information. I think that the next time somebody demands this information, I'll agree to provide it on the condition that the landlord provides me with his SIN and driver's license numbers. It seems only fair, right? I'd be interested to see how many actually would go for it. My guess: not many.

I often get the impression from landlords that, if I refuse to provide my driver's license number and SIN, they'll just find another tenant who will. While that might be the reality of the current rental market in Calgary, there's one problem with this practice:

It's illegal under both provincial and federal legislation.

Both the Alberta PIPA and the federal PIPEDA state that an organization cannot require consent to collect personal information as a condition of the supply of a product or service (beyond what is required to supply that product or service). In other words, because the SIN is not necessary for a credit check, a landlord legally cannot refuse to rent to a prospective tenant who refuses to disclose it. Because operating a motor vehicle has nothing to do with renting a house, and the driver's license number serves very little legitimate purpose outside of that domain, this also applies to the driver's license number.

The biggest problem that I see here is that these behaviours, while obvious to a tenant, are also hard to prove. I'd love to file a complaint against a landlord who is engaging in this behaviour, but I'd also need enough information to be able to know whom I was complaining about. It has been my experience that I never really find out much information about a prospective landlord beyond a first name until we're both ready and willing to sign on the dotted line. Second, how does one produce evidence that the non-disclosure of unnecessary personal information is the reason for being refused as a tenant? In reality, it's the tenant's word against the landlord's. Unless the landlord is either clueless or stubborn, it would probably be challenging to get him to admit to a privacy commissioner that he was engaging in such behaviour.

Until the time comes that I can snare a complaint, I'll just keep on searching. Oh, and by the way, if you have a property to rent in Calgary and you'll give me your SIN, let me know!


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