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Privacy invaded: IPC

But official says MuniCard will survive

The province's information and privacy commission says the City of Vaughan invaded taxpayers' privacy by using tax roll details in the marketing of its municipal credit card. MuniCard's CEO says the ruling was firm but fair. (Photo illustration by Philip Alves/Vaughan Today)

Though wounded, the MuniCard was not dealt a fatal blow by a recent ruling from Ontario’s information and privacy commission, says the credit card’s president and CEO.

Frank Miele said Monday the privacy commissioner’s report, which scolded the city for misusing private taxpayer information, was tough but fair.

“Absolutely it can (survive),” he said of the MuniCard. “And it is.”

The MuniCard, a partnership between the city, Civic Strategies and GE Money Trust Company, was designed as a way for homeowners to earn reward points that would be used to lower their property tax bills. Miele, a former city commissioner, helped promote the card before leaving the city and taking the helm at MuniCard.

One resident thought the city went too far when it used tax roll information to market the card. She had received an application for the card through the mail in a City of Vaughan envelope. The mailing invited her to apply for the MuniCard and included her tax roll number. The resident complained to the privacy commissioner.

The City of Vaughan argued its use of the tax roll information to market the card was legitimate because the card offered users tax savings.

Not convinced, the privacy commission report’s author concluded the city’s use of personal information was a contravention of the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

“In my view, promoting a credit card, albeit with benefits to taxpayers, is not consistent with the collection of taxes,” investigator Cathy Hamilton wrote. “It is a private sector for-profit company and, despite the reward program being offered to its cardholders, the main recipient of the benefit of the MuniCard program is the credit card company itself.”

With one marketing avenue closed, Miele said promoting the card will continue in other forms, which could include newspaper advertising or direct mailings.

“The objective was to support us by putting an application inside the tax mail out,” he said. “But since it’s been ruled that that’s not appropriate — that’s fair, we have no problems with that — there’s other mediums that we will be using to achieve our marketing objective.”

Roughly 1,500 Vaughan taxpayers have signed up with MuniCard since its launch in September and are enjoying both the tax rewards and instant savings at nearly 150 businesses in the city, Miele said.

The MuniCard program in Vaughan was the first of its kind in North America and other municipalities, including Oshawa, had expressed interest in the idea. Miele said work on taking the card beyond Vaughan continues despite the setback.

In addition to halting the city’s use of tax roll information to promote the credit card, the privacy commissioner’s office also ordered the City of Vaughan to re-examine how it handles personal information when dealing with third parties.

Vaughan Today
Online: August 7, 2008 [link]