In his keynote address to the almost 500 attendees at the IAPP Canada Privacy Symposium, Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien outlined the priorities that will guide his office throughout the next year, which include work on government surveillance, biometrics and the “economics of personal information.”
First, though, Therrien acknowledged the somewhat rocky start he faced during his early days on the job. In the first week after his nomination, critics wondered whether Therrien was the right person for the job given his relative obscurity to the tight-knit privacy world.
“I had my fair share of critics before I even uttered a word,” Therrien said, adding, however, that while it wasn’t an easy moment, “I saw firsthand that there was a real interest and care in who was to fulfill the role.”
Despite the early heat, Therrien hopes in the end to be judged on his actions, he said. To help guide those actions, Therrien’s team held focus groups across the country to hear from Canadians themselves. Some of the “liveliest” discussions centered around the economics of personal information, or the idea that consumers now pay for services with their own data, and concerns about the power imbalance between industry and consumers. Consent was also a key concern. How can consumers give meaningful consent when privacy policies are incomprehensible and data collection is pervasive?
Therrien said his office plans to talk to stakeholders, draft a paper on problems and potential solutions and, if necessary, suggest legislation. He understands, however, that it’s a delicate process.
“The last thing we want is for privacy protection to become a barrier to technological advancement, which is why we, too, need to be innovative in our search for solutions,” he said, such as just-in-time privacy notifications and pop-ups.
On government surveillance, the former legal advisor to Justice Canada said he “gets it.” It’s essential to thwart threats, but there’s a threat in government response as well.
"The repercussions can be so serious when that equilibrium shifts too far one way or the other. I can tell you that this is an issue that keeps me up at night,” he said.
While his office’s best efforts to get Parliament to amend the Anti-Terrorism Act failed, it is “not done with that file,” Therrien promised.
“Going forward, we will commit significant resources toward compliance activities to ensure the provisions contained in the bill are implemented in accordance with the Privacy Act,” he said, adding he also plans to push for more transparency reports from both the public and private sectors on access to data and research on “the effects of surveillance activities on vulnerable populations.”
Canadians are really worried about the realities they now face with the proliferation of social media and what that means for the information they can and cannot control, Therrien said.
“Everyone we met with was aware of the potential reputational harm that could come from sharing personal information online,” he said, including being profiled by organizations and subsequently discriminated against, as well as facing differential pricing. He wasn’t ready to take a stance on the right to be forgotten but said his office will launch a dialogue in the coming year with an aim toward establishing a position.
Finally, Therrien discussed the potential hazards of biometric information generated by fitness trackers and the like. While some Canadians have said new laws are needed, Therrien worries about how that might affect tech innovation. For now, he plans to issue guidance to help developers incorporate privacy during the design phase of product development and aims to include biometric data in discussions around consent.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner will release a report outlining plans in greater detail next month.
“I am energized when I think of the path ahead. And I very much look forward to working collaboratively with all of you in this dynamic field, to produce the kind of concrete results that will give Canadians more control over their personal information,” Therrien said.
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