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Privacy for the next decade, not next week

Is the privacy community weakening its influence by concentrating on the incidents and obsessions of everyday life? By reacting to decisions made by individual companies, by focusing on specific technical challenges and eventually acceding to the creation of tools that both solve those technical challenges and enable the gradual erosion of our right to privacy, are we behaving shortsightedly?

Are we focusing on the street signs and landmarks that dominate our behaviour as individuals, rather than helping identify and lay the roads that will guide the development of our society?

That’s the question posed by Professor Ian Kerr of the University of Ottawa at a private function in Edmonton last month. Speaking to an audience of Privacy Commissioners, Assistant Privacy Commissioners and senior privacy advocates, he worried that:

“… idealism is no longer in vogue. … My concern is that we in the privacy advocacy community are taking approaches that shrink any space for idealism; and that, as a result, we in the privacy community are, quite unintentionally and inadvertently, undermining ourselves. We are creating for ourselves a kind of silence through which we will no longer be heard.”

Professor Kerr went on to cite Langdon Winner, writing in 1980’s Autonomous Technology:

“Shielded by the conviction that technology is neutral and tool-like, a whole new order is built – piecemeal, step by step, with the parts and pieces linked together in novel ways – without the slightest public awareness or opportunity to dispute the character of the changes underway. It is somnambulism (rather than determinism) that characterizes technological politics… Silence is its distinctive mode of speech.”

Many privacy protection authorities, whether provincial, federal or international, find that most of their time and energy is occupied protecting the privacy rights of individuals, on a case by case basis. This is a result of their mandate to enforce specific legislation, the processes established within each office, and the natural impulse to ensure an individual’s rights are protected, errors are corrected and wrongs are addressed.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that privacy advocates – especially Privacy Commissioners – have an obligation to look beyond the transaction and to observe the trend, to anticipate challenges to our privacy rights and prepare counter arguments.

The text of Professor Kerr’s speech is available, as well as the audio.

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