Time Inconsistency, Behavioural Economics and Privacy

A question that occupies a lot of our time in the office is why, despite growing research that clearly shows that privacy is important to Canadians, do many of us give out our personal information to anyone who asks? While we know privacy is important to people, they still trade personal information for just about anything – from a “free” service to a chance to win something. Why does what we say is important to us often not translate to our observable behaviour? Where does this disconnect happen?

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What’s in store for a new session of Parliament

On July 3, 2008 the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada announced the results of a public opinion study we commissioned on the personal information customers hand over (or refuse to) to retailers. According to the results, more than half of Canadians said that they were apprehensive about giving their personal information to retailers, citing concerns over security issues, identity theft and fraud.

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A correction – but still a concern

Today, we issued a news release celebrating Data Privacy Day, an initiative of the International Association of Privacy Professionals. In that release we made the assertion that “We have seen a proliferation of identity theft and spam as well as a tripling of reported data breaches around the world last year” – based on an analysis of data breaches first reported in USA Today, and similar reporting by the Associated Press.

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A new year’s errand list

As we close out 2007, we’d like to sound a note of caution for privacy rights in Canada. We are lucky to have a variety of protections for personal information and data at the territorial, provincial and federal levels. Nevertheless, the Commissioner took a moment last week to highlight some of the steps that need to be taken by individuals, corporations and the government in the face of continuing challenges:

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Not all data breaches are caused by fraud

This week, we’ve been speaking to the mediaFootnote 1 about an incident at the Passport Office: a person using their online application form found that they could access others’ personal documents by changing one variable in the URL displayed in their browser. The Globe and Mail and Slashdot report that this was likely the result of an error in the code behind the web page – or an omission in the code.

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