Toronto pet owners safe from Patriot Act

What does pet registration have to do with Canadian privacy? According to City of Toronto officials, lots.

It started out as a simple project to take the city’s dog and cat licensing process online to increase compliance and generate more revenue. But political developments south of the border led project proponents to consider the project’s privacy implications.

“There’s this little thing called the Patriot Act,” said George Pelekis, systems integrator with the City of Toronto. Pelekis was a speaker at Showcase Ontario, a public sector IT education event happening in Toronto this week.

The Patriot Act is a U.S. legislation that expands the surveillance powers of law enforcement agencies in a bid to counter terrorism. Pelekis was referring to a provision in the Act that compels U.S. businesses to turn over customer information to the FBI, upon receipt of a national security letter.

Implementing an online registration and renewal portal for dog and cat owners in Toronto meant that the city’s Animal Services division had to integrate the new Web application to its existing pet licensing database, explained Carl Bandow, supervisor for Animal Services.

The city’s backend database uses an application called Chameleon, a software product from California-based software firm HLP, Inc., which also offers a Web licensing application product.

The integration would have been easier had the City of Toronto opted to go with the same vendor for its Web licensing application, but privacy concerns won over convenience, said Bandow.

Because the vendor is headquartered in California, Toronto city stakeholders were concerned that the personal information of Toronto pet owners may be subject to disclosure under the Patriot Act, if the city used HLP’s technology for the online portal, Bandow added.

The online registration and renewal portal, now called the ePet service, would require pet owners to enter personally identifiable information as well as credit card information in order to process a new registration or a renewal.

Instead, the city opted to develop its own Web licensing application using IBM’s WebSphere and Oracle 9i, Pelekis said, which comprise the standard technology architecture for the City of Toronto.

“We try to not reinvent the wheel and employ city-proven standards,” he said, adding that the city also got lots of help from its technology vendors.

HLP facilitated the integration of the new Web licensing application with the Chameleon licensing database, Pelekis said, while Allstream conducted vulnerability assessments.

With a seven-month timeline that began in February 2006, Pelekis’s team was expected to make the application live by September of the same year, a challenge that called for a phased implementation.

“It was important for us to manage the scope (of the project) because of the deadline,” said Pelekis.

The project was delivered in two phases. The first phase, which was accomplished according to the September deadline, involved implementing only the key features that are essential to the business of registration and renewal, Pelekis said.

The second phase, which was completed in April 2007, enabled Animal Services to add more features to the Web application, including a donation button, which allowed portal users to donate to the Animal Services.

Since the Web application went live, 42 per cent of new pet licences and 18 per cent of license renewal applications were processed online, Pelekis said. He added that the city expects online renewal rates to increase in the coming months.

Further strengthening its privacy mandate, the city has also made it a point to send out renewal notices by mail, instead of through e-mail notifications.

Pelekis explained that if a pet owner has a Hotmail account, personal information contained in e-mail notification may end up being coursed through a Seattle-based server where Microsoft, the owner of Hotmail, is headquartered.

“How do we deal with the fact that your personal information may end up in American hands,” Pelekis said.

The mailed notices include a URL to the online portal to encourage pet owners to renew licences online.

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