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On June 15, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada released the results of the “2020-21 Survey of Canadians on Privacy-Related Issues.” Between November and December 2020, a 14-minute random digit dialing telephone survey was administered to 1,502 Canadian residents 16 years or older. The goal of the research was to better understand the extent to which Canadians were aware, understood and perceived privacy-related issues. In the report, the results were expressed as a percentage.

Knowledge, concern and general perceptions

In 2020, Canadians were confident about their knowledge of their privacy rights and stated that it was very good (14%) or good (50%); few said that it was poor (14%) or very poor (4%). Similarly, many Canadians claimed they knew how to protect their privacy rights, indicating very good (12%) and good (46%) knowledge, and few rated their knowledge as poor (19%) or very poor (4%). Interestingly, 52% indicated they knew how technologies affected their privacy and 30% said they did not know.

But what was most striking was the decrease in reported concern about the protection of personal privacy since 2018. In 2020, 32% of Canadians were extremely concerned compared to 37% in 2018, and 13% were not concerned compared to 8% in 2018.

Trust in data-handling organizations

In 2020, only 45% of Canadians believed businesses generally respected their privacy rights, where 36% did not. On the other hand, 63% believed the federal government generally respected their privacy rights and 23% did not.

There was a considerably low amount of trust in most organizations except banks. While 29% of Canadians stated they had a great deal of trust in banks, only 6% could say this for telephone and internet companies, 5% for Big Tech, 3% for online retailers and just 2% for social media companies. Indeed, social media companies did not impart a feeling of trust — a whopping 39% of Canadians had no trust at all in social media companies. This measure of no trust was quite different for banks (5%), telcos and internet companies (16%), Big Tech (23%), and online retailers (15%).

Online and mobile privacy

And when it came to social media platforms gathering information to create user profiles, there was significant concern. Thirty-seven percent were extremely concerned, 20% were concerned and 31% were somewhat concerned about platforms gathering personal information the user posted online to create a profile. Along the same lines, Canadians were extremely concerned (40%), concerned (17%) and somewhat concerned (32%) about platforms gathering personal information someone else had posted online about the user to create a profile.

There was a high level of concern among Canadians with respect to how companies and organizations used online information to make decisions about them, such as for a job, insurance claim or health coverage. In particular, 29% were extremely concerned, 18% were concerned and 41% were somewhat concerned. Remarkably, concern about identity theft was high for Canadians — 48% were extremely concerned, 16% were concerned and 25% were somewhat concerned.

Body as information

Some Canadians were more comfortable than others when it came to providing information about their bodies in certain scenarios. For instance, many were extremely comfortable (22%) and comfortable (38%) talking to a healthcare practitioner by phone or online. In contrast, only 12% felt extremely uncomfortable talking to a healthcare practitioner by phone or online, but 41% felt extremely uncomfortable providing a DNA sample to a company that might share it with police, 32% felt extremely uncomfortable providing a DNA sample to a company for genetic testing and 41% felt extremely uncomfortable allowing fitness tracker data to be shared with an employer/insurance company.

Economics of personal information

Interestingly, in 2020, 71% of Canadians refused to provide an organization or business with their personal information because of privacy concerns; this represented a decrease from 2018, where the number was 76%. And in 2020, 38% of Canadians provided their data for discounts or incentives on a good or service. an increase from 2018, where the number was 30%.

Moreover, 74% of Canadians adjusted privacy settings on a social media account and 41% even deleted a social media account because of privacy concerns — 40% of Canadians even stopped doing business with a company that experienced a privacy breach.

Transparency and consent

In 2020, 53% of Canadians believed the government of Canada should not have powers to collect and use citizens’ personal information as part of intelligence-gathering activities, whereas 32% felt it should. And in terms of fraud detection, more Canadians were comfortable with the government collecting Canadians’ personal information from online sources such as social media posts to investigate potential fraud than to make decisions about access to government programs and services. For example, 21% of Canadians were very comfortable with this collection of personal information to investigate potential fraud, whereas only 11% were very comfortable with this type of collection to make decisions about government programs and services.

Canadians did not feel informed on how government handled their personal information, stating they had not very much (38%) or no information at all (16%). And they felt they had not very much control (35%) or no control at all (30%) over how their personal information was being used by the government.

Contrastingly, when it came to how businesses handled their personal information, Canadians felt they had not very much (41%) or no information at all (14%). Additionally, they felt they had not very much (37%) or no control at all (24%) over how their personal information was being used by companies.

COVID-19

According to the survey results, many Canadians’ views on privacy were not impacted by COVID-19 — to illustrate, 69% of Canadians indicated their views on privacy and the protection of their personal information had not changed since the start of the pandemic. Only 29% said their views had changed.

What can be taken from this?

What the above suggests is that although Canadians may believe they understand their privacy rights and how technology affects their rights, they simultaneously seem concerned about how their personal information is protected. This is especially true regarding social media companies. Canadians have low levels of trust to the point where they have refused to provide their information to organizations, deleted social media accounts and even stopped doing business with organizations that have experienced a privacy breach.

It is necessary to increase education about privacy and create more transparency among organizations so Canadians can feel more confident about how their personal information is being collected and used when critical employment, insurance and health decisions are being made about them. 


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