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PIPWatch: Privacy technology for Canadian Internet users

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For many of us, reading the privacy policies of our favourite websites isn’t exactly a thrilling prospect. It’s a bit like getting in the recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables. Sure, it’s one of the keys to strong muscles, mental sharpness and avoiding scurvy, but it’s not always enjoyable.

Enter the Personal Information Protection Toolbar or PIPWATCH. A pilot project run by the University of Toronto’s Information Policy Research Program, PIPWATCH is a web browser toolbar designed to help Canadian Internet users find out if their favourite websites comply with Canadian privacy legislation, in particular the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).

Users download the toolbar here and plug in a site’s address and the name and email address of the site’s privacy officer (Under PIPEDA, every Canadian organization that collects personal information is required to have a contact person to explain and clarify the privacy practices of the organization, known as a privacy officer). The toolbar generates a request letter users can edit and send to a site’s privacy officer.

The request letter asks three questions about a site’s privacy and then PIPWATCH makes the responses available to users. It displays privacy ratings based on the answers to the questions in the request letter and allows users to see how a site compares with other sites in the same industry.

The privacy officer’s answers are displayed as icons in the toolbar. Colored “privacy beavers” in the bottom right of the browser give users a quick summary of the answers – for example, a grey beaver with a red “x” indicates that the privacy officer has not responded to the questionnaire. The result is a store of information about the privacy practices of a range of organizations that is collectively gathered and shared by users – the same idea behind sites like Wikipedia

Reading a website’s privacy policy is still the best way to go (that juicy orange or crunchy green pepper really isn’t so bad after all) but initiatives like the PIPWATCH toolbar mean that Canadians have one more tool to help make sense of privacy concerns when it comes to their online lives.

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