Stage Is Set for a Challenging Year for Privacy in Canada

Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest that “What’s past is prologue,” and this notion definitely holds true when we consider the most significant privacy issues for Canadians in 2014.

Issues such as government surveillance and massive data breaches that pushed privacy to centre stage last year—prompting Dictionary.com to make “privacy” its word of the year—will undoubtedly continue to be hot issues.

But we can also expect to see a plethora of challenging new issues flowing from the intersection of technology and privacy.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has been closely examining several new technological issues as part of our recent research efforts—precisely because we expect they will raise important privacy issues in Canada in the year ahead and beyond.

Here is a glance at some of the key issues on our watch list:

Wearable Computing

Google Glass is the best-known example of the wearable computing technologies that are being developed by a number of organizations. As these technologies move past the development stage into more widespread use, it will become easier to collect and share images and potentially other information about other people.

Wearable devices offer very many potential benefits—for example, allowing people to closely monitor their health or making daily life easier for people with disabilities.

But it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to think of any number of situations where wearable computing devices could intrude on our privacy. “Always-on computing” has the potential to be used in ways that violate existing social norms around the ability to go about our daily lives in relative privacy.

It is difficult to predict all the ways in which this technology may be used in the future, which is why we are encouraging organizations to build in privacy protections at the front end.

In order to help us contribute to discussions around how to protect privacy as wearable computing develops, our office has prepared a research report outlining the privacy implications of wearable computing devices. We will be posting it on our website in the near future.


Another privacy-sensitive emerging technology we are monitoring closely is unmanned aerial vehicles—UAVs or drones.

We have already seen the use of drones sparking concern and protest. For example, the citizens of Deer Trail, CO, U.S., have been debating a proposed ordinance that would permit the shooting down of drones that stray into the small town’s airspace.

Here in Canada, we know that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has a growing fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, which are used to gather information from accident scenes and to help in search-and-rescue operations.

Our office’s Information Centre is beginning to receive a smattering of calls from Canadians with privacy concerns related to drones.

There is every indication we will see a proliferation of the use of these devices in both the public and private sectors—and that they will become increasingly available to individuals.

Drone technology raises important privacy concerns. Our office has already completed a comprehensive research project on drones, which is on our website. That piece of work has helped to lay some of the groundwork necessary for a future where drones become more commonplace.

Of course, the privacy implications will flow from exactly how drones are used and by whom.

However, as we concluded in our research initiative, we believe it will be important to circumscribe their use within an accountability structure that ensures they are justified, necessary and proportional, and that the necessary checks and balances fundamental to a democratic society are in place to stave off proliferation of uses, abuses and function creep.

Facial Recognition Technologies

Another emerging technology our office is looking at is facial recognition, which many fear will bring an end to any barrier between the online and offline worlds and make anonymity impossible.

While the current reality is that technology hasn’t yet reached that level of sophistication, we have significant concerns about the privacy implications of facial recognition.

Rapid technological advancement and dropping costs have led to expanding uses of facial recognition technologies by commercial and government interests that increasingly affect individuals going about their daily lives.

Our office is very concerned about its potential to detract from individuals’ right to privacy. Facial recognition poses grave risks for democracy and society if it is allowed to be used indiscriminately, by anyone.

Predictive Analytics

Both the public and private sectors have an interest in trying to predict what people will do in the future. For example: What will they buy? Who will break the law?

The potential power of predictive analytics was famously highlighted in reporting by Charles Duhigg of The New York Times, who detailed how an American retail giant developed a pregnancy-prediction algorithm.

Indeed, that illustration was one of the factors that prompted our office to take a close look at how predictive analytics—predictions based on technological analysis of raw data—may affect the privacy rights of Canadians.

Intelligent predictive analytics hold the promise of helping to advance research and innovation, and to help support sound decision-making in fields such as public health, economic development and economic forecasting.

But, from a privacy perspective, there is a risk that arises from increased collection, sharing and linkages of personal information. Without proper consideration of privacy protection, predictive analytics could be incredibly invasive and intrusive, discriminatory and another element of a surveillance society.

To date, the examples of predictive analytics in actual use involve organizations in the United States. With some experts claiming that organizations could soon understand our own tastes and habits better than we do—it seems a safe bet to, er, predict that predictive analytics will pose privacy challenges for Canadians in the near future.


These are just some of the new issues our office will be watching as the year unfolds.

We’ll also be keeping a close eye on many other developments that have the potential to raise significant privacy concerns—the Internet of Things, the quantified-self movement, body-worn cameras and genetic privacy, to name a few.

The technological revolution holds the promise of new opportunities but also brings new risks.

This new environment requires new approaches for the protection of privacy—not new principles. We will face the challenges of 2014 supported by the fact that the right to privacy is immutable, anchored in the human need for personal integrity and freedom.

photo credit: Ian Muttoo via photopin cc

Written By

Chantal Bernier


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