162. Online Privacy
By Andrew D. Wright
The Chris Slane comic shows a naked man, blindfolded but with a big goofy
grin, tapping along with a stick on magazine pages scattered on the
ground. Around him shadowy figures in suits watch and record every move he
makes. The caption reads: What you really look like when you're surfing
This is pretty much the state of online privacy according to David Fraser,
Halifax-based lawyer with McInnes Cooper, and widely regarded as one of
the leading privacy and technology lawyers in Canada.
Each of us leaves traces as we go about our business. Your Internet
Service Provider can monitor your network traffic. The data packets travel
through jurisdictions that can inspect them and log their start and end
The Canadian government has introduced bills
C47 which are
ostensibly to "modernize" police powers to investigate online but
according to David Fraser, are more to avoid the paperwork of having to
make a case to get personal information in front of a judge. He says that
the way the legislation is structured it is too open-ended and police
could get full information on any and everyone with little in the way of
pressing legal reasons.
Most people are unaware of how much information on them is available. Many
carry cell phones with Global Positioning chips. Debit and credit card
transactions match your real time location with your purchases. Websites
log their visitors, what sites they come in from and where they go to
next. Government and private cameras are everywhere from transit buses to
busy intersections and in many businesses.
When all the information is put together, a remarkably detailed portrait
of who we are, what we do, and where we go can be put together. Internet
Service Providers and telephone companies can match IP addresses and phone
numbers with names and locations, removing any pretence of anonymity or
Privacy laws vary from place to place. In Canada, overall privacy is
PIPEDA, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic
Documents Act, which limits the sort of information that can be collected
about you and how long it may be kept.
In Nova Scotia,
PIIDPA, the Personal Information International Disclosure
Protection Act obliges service providers and other public bodies to store
and access all personal or private information they store on Canadian
servers only and to take reasonable measures to protect that information.
In other jurisdictions, such as the United States and the United Kingdom,
the government can take any information that crosses their border in any
form and use it as they see fit. As a result, many who deal with personal
information use plain formatted portable computers with no personal
information on them when they travel outside Canada, since authorities can
seize them and copy the contents.
Personal encryption as a security measure in such cases is not good enough
as authorities in other jurisdictions can legally demand encryption keys
and jail those unwilling to hand them over.
In 1999 Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy said, "Privacy is dead. Get
over it." Ten years later, it is clear that privacy is now a state of mind
rather than an objective reality for most of the world.
As it gets easier to put together the multitude of digital facts about
each of us, and to track these patterns wholesale over time, there is less
and less left of our lives for each of us to call our own. Still, we can
keep pressure on our leaders to prevent the misuse of access to our
David Fraser's Privacy Law Blog:
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Originally published 4 January 2010