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162. Online Privacy

By Andrew D. Wright

[Graphic: Chris Slane comic - Naked on the Net] 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 the net.

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 points.

The Canadian government has introduced bills C46 and 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.

Privacy laws vary from place to place. In Canada, overall privacy is guaranteed by 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 personal information.


David Fraser's Privacy Law Blog:


More info:


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Originally published 4 January 2010


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