Appearance before the Senate Committee of the Whole on the Privacy Commissioner of Canada's Nomination for Reappointment

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November 25, 2010
Ottawa, Ontario

Opening Statement by Jennifer Stoddart
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

(Check against delivery)


Good afternoon honourable Senators.  It is a tremendous privilege to be here with you to answer questions about my nomination for reappointment.

I very much appreciate the government’s confidence in me to continue on in the role of Privacy Commissioner of Canada and to have a chance to build on the important work my Office has been doing over the past few years.

It has been an incredible honour to serve Canadians and Parliament.  The last seven years have been a passionate journey. 

You may recall that, back in late 2003, I took over an Office that was only beginning to recover from an extremely difficult period in its history.  Our administrative powers had been seriously curtailed.  Part of our budget was about to lapse.  We were being investigated by the RCMP, the Auditor General and others.

It took a lot of hard work, but we got our house back in order and returned our focus to where it should be – on privacy protection for Canadians.

Since then, the massive privacy challenges that have emerged in a very compressed timeframe are nothing short of astonishing.

Technological advances have brought us social networking, and YouTube, and Foursquare, and any number of other novel new ways to communicate. 

Personal information has also become an increasingly valuable commodity for private-sector organizations. 

Meanwhile, governments around the world are collecting more and more of our personal information as part of national security and law enforcement initiatives.

The worldwide flow of data has become instantaneous and constant. 

I am extremely proud of our achievements in the face of these – and many other – colossal changes. 

But the privacy threats we continue to face are immense.  There is still much to do and so I would focus on a few areas: 

  • Leadership on priority privacy issues;
  • Supporting Canadians, organizations and institutions to make informed privacy decisions; and, of course,
  • Service delivery to Canadians.

Leadership on Priority Issues

The online world has been something of a wild frontier for privacy protection. As Canadians live out more and more of their daily lives in this digital environment, it is clear that is where we need to be focusing much of our attention.

We have already begun this work. As you know, we have had ongoing discussions with online giants such as Facebook and Google.

Currently, we are conducting investigations into further complaints about Facebook, a site targeting children, and an online dating site.  These are important issues when you consider the role the Internet plays in our lives – I recently read that one in four American couples who met since 2007 first met online.

Looking ahead, we need to continue to develop a deeper understanding of privacy issues in a digital world.  Our recent public consultations on online consumer tracking and cloud computing are a good example of that.

Continued cooperation with our provincial, as well as our international, colleagues will also be critical to our future success. 

We should also continue to build on our expertise by hiring more IT specialists and creating links with outside experts.

Another ongoing strategic priority relates to the privacy implications of national security and law enforcement measures, which raise the potential for extremely serious consequences for individuals.

Privacy is not an absolute right.  Indeed, there may be cases when privacy protections must give way to protecting a greater good.  However, Canadians should only be asked to make this sacrifice when it is clear that the promised outcome – be it safer air travel or catching money launderers – will actually be achieved and that there is no other less privacy-invasive option that would allow us to reach this goal.

We have worked with numerous government departments and agencies to introduce stronger privacy protections into initiatives such as Passenger Protect, airport scanners, and the RCMP’s Exempt Databanks.  We should continue to be vigilant in this area.

Supporting Informed Privacy Decisions

Another piece of the privacy protection challenge is making sure that Canadians develop strong digital literacy skills.

We are using online tools to help Canadians to better understand their privacy rights – and to make well-informed choices in a rapidly changing privacy landscape.  We have a website targeted at youth and a blog.  We “tweet” and we post videos about privacy on YouTube.

Much of our public awareness work is being conducted in collaboration with others, including teachers, librarians, government organizations, and consumer and business groups.

Perhaps partly because I am a former provincial commissioner myself, I have always seen the need to build stronger ties with provincial colleagues and other stakeholders across the country.  I want to ensure that the Privacy Commissioner’s Office is not perceived as either too Ottawa-centric or unaware of issues outside the National Capital Region.

We recently opened an office in Toronto, where many of the organizations we receive complaints about are headquartered.  It will also be critical to maintain regional outreach to all parts of the country and to continue to maintain cultural and linguistic diversity in the Office to be truly responsive to the Canadians we serve.

Service Delivery

At the end of the day, though, what is most important to me is that our work meets the needs and the expectations of Canadians. Part of that means also remaining responsive to the needs of Parliament, government, and businesses.

Looking ahead, we should identify and deliver new service delivery models that use new technologies to help us maximize our results.

I look forward to the next review of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.  It’s important, in this fast-changing world, to ensure that the legislation and the tools available to us continue to be effective.

If re-appointed, you can also expect me to continue pressing the urgent need for reform of our badly out-of-date Privacy Act.

Conclusion

I would welcome the opportunity to continue to leverage what we have already accomplished. 

Thank you and I would be pleased to answer any questions.

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