In an age in which people are sharing the tiniest details of their lives on Facebook and Twitter — from what they had for lunch to whom they’ve had sex with — it’s hard to believe anyone still values privacy.
But they do — perhaps more than ever, according to some of the country’s leading privacy experts.
“We have a culture of revelation, or revealing things about ourselves to other people, that really hasn’t been available to us before,” says Ian Kerr, the Canada research chair in ethics, law and technology at the University of Ottawa. “A lot of people mistakenly take that point and say, ‘Oh, people no longer care about privacy, they’re letting it all hang out on Facebook.’ That’s not really what’s going on.” While it’s easy to think the inexorable march into digital connectedness through technology means people are becoming less protective of their personal information, Kerr says it’s actually more a case of privacy evolving to match changing social norms. We are, in effect, becoming more and less private.
Kerr recalls a study that he took part in with a number of provincial privacy commissioners in 2007. In it, students were asked whether they knew that text chat services such as BlackBerry and MSN Messenger owned their communications, and if so, why they continued to use them.
One respondent said he was indeed aware but he didn’t care, because texting his friends was more private than making a phone call, which could be overheard by his parents. He said he would rather risk dealing with a faceless corporation down the road than with the immediate ramifications of what his parents might hear.
“It was a real eye-opener because it told the commissioners that there wasn’t a lack of privacy value, it’s that (younger people) place their salience in a different location than other people would,” Kerr says.”It’s therefore a bit harder to understand where they’re coming from.”
In a recent poll taken by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, two-thirds of respondents said protecting their personal information will be one of the most important issues over the next few years. The recent uproar by Canadians against lawful-access legislation that would have given police new powers for collecting personal information, which was ultimately dropped, lends credibility to the poll numbers.
“There is a privacy awareness and a concern about it,” says Jennifer Stoddart, the privacy commissioner. “From that point of view, concern about privacy and privacy values are alive and well.” The move toward more voluntary information-sharing actually has little to do with technology, since privacy values adjust themselves to relative social norms, she says. As an example, Stoddart points to the recent revelation that Antarctic explorers a century ago hid findings of penguins’ sexual habits because they found them scandalous.
“It was taboo to even publish this in Edwardian England,” she says. “That’s just penguins, but it’s a parallel development.” The same issues and challenges are therefore likely to be present regardless of advances. New technologies such as augmented reality and genome sequencing — which will soon be affordable for the general public to do and share — will be subject to the same problems society is currently experiencing.
The key, then, lies in getting the laws right, and then getting product and service providers to respect those laws. Stoddart, who has clashed with the likes of Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. in recent years over privacy violations, says her office needs the ability to issue fines to deal with “the culture of impunity among that community.” Canada, which has had strong privacy laws since the Personal Information Protection and Electronics Documents Act came into force in 2000, is behind Europe and the United States in this regard, she says. With PIPEDA being reviewed by Parliament this year, she hopes to finally gain the ability to fine transgressors.
The corporations themselves are still figuring out what users consider to be acceptable. Microsoft Corp., which has enjoyed a relatively smoother ride from privacy watchdogs than some of its peers, preaches a philosophy that comes from founder Bill Gates’ “trustworthy computing” memo a decade ago.
In it, Gates famously wrote that the future of society depended on companies creating secure online services people could trust. John Weigelt, national technology officer for Microsoft Canada, says it’s a policy all online services should take to heart.
“That really changed the mindset of our product groups. They had to go through a formalized process before shipping their products,” he says.
“We’ve really gotten crisp around what the marketplace requires of us.” Outside of regulatory oversight and corporations instituting their own best practices, experts agree more research is needed on how people’s data can and will be used. While many online services track personal information anonymously and use it in the aggregate, there is the threat that such data can be “de-anonymized.” In her book The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us, Nora Young — host of CBC Radio’s Spark program — writes about how researchers have done just that. By comparing and contrasting different parts of anonymous data, they’ve managed to pinpoint the identities of individuals.
It’s one key area of privacy that warrants considerably more exploration. “In some ways,” Young says, “we don’t even understand the math of this very well, or what keeps that data safe and anonymous.”
— Financial Post