Appearance before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics on the Nomination for Reappointment

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December 2, 2010
Ottawa, Ontario

Opening Statement by Jennifer Stoddart
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

(Check against delivery)


Good afternoon. It is an honour to be here with you to answer questions about my nomination for reappointment as Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

I would deeply appreciate Parliament’s confidence in me to continue on in this role and to have the opportunity to build on what my Office has already accomplished. It has been a great privilege to serve Canadians and Parliament for the last seven years.

As you know, I have had the pleasure of appearing before this committee many times over the course of my mandate.

It’s been quite a journey. Back in late 2003, I took over an Office that was only beginning to recover from an extremely difficult period. 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 – protecting the privacy rights of Canadians.

To be frank, this has also been a tremendous challenge in the face of a dramatic re-shaping of the privacy landscape in recent years.

Technological advances and human creativity have combined to bring us a multitude of new online services and electronic devices with important implications for our privacy – social networking sites, YouTube, Foursquare and smart phones, to name but a few.

At the same time, our personal data has become a hot commodity in both the private and public sectors. Businesses use increasingly detailed profiles to better target us with advertising, while governments around the world see personal data as the key to combatting terrorism and other crimes.

We live in a world where the flow of data is global, instantaneous and constant.

I am extremely proud of our achievements in the face of this rapid change. However, the ongoing threats to privacy remain enormous and there is still much to do.

If reappointed, 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 – and, by extension, to Parliament as well.

Leadership on Priority Issues

Online World

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.

As you know, we have had ongoing discussions with online giants such as Facebook and Google. At the moment, we are investigating further complaints about Facebook as well as a site targeting children, and an online dating site.

These are critically important issues when you consider the role the Internet plays in daily life. We can now interact, shop, learn, and pretty much live online. I recently read that one in four American couples who met since 2007 first met online.

Earlier this year, we held public consultations on online consumer tracking and cloud computing in order to learn more about certain industry practices, explore their privacy implications, and find out what privacy protections Canadians expect with respect to these practices.

Looking ahead, we need to continue to develop a deeper understanding of privacy issues in a digital world.

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

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

Public Safety

Another ongoing strategic priority relates to the potentially grave privacy implications of national security and law enforcement measures.

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, or no-fly program, 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 blog and a website targeted at youth. We “tweet” and we post videos about privacy on YouTube.

Much of our public awareness work is being conducted in collaboration with a wide variety of others such as teachers, consumer and business groups as well as government organizations.

Perhaps partly because I am a former provincial commissioner, 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, what is most important to me is that our work meets the needs and the expectations of Canadians.

And, as I mentioned at the outset, this requires that we also remain responsive to the needs of businesses, government and Parliament.

I enjoy a very privileged position as an Officer of Parliament. From my point of view, I have had a very positive and constructive relationship with Parliament.

I am accountable to Parliament. For example, I come to Parliament whenever I am invited to comment on legislation being studied at committee. Once a year, we set out, for Parliament’s consideration, our plans and priorities. If there is a priority that Parliament would like me to follow, it has an opportunity to bring it forward during this process. I also table annual reports on our work to Parliament.

I would certainly welcome further opportunities to speak with members of this committee and Parliament more broadly about what my Office does and to discuss any matter that raises privacy concerns.

Conclusion

In closing, I would like to say that I would welcome the opportunity to continue to leverage what has already been accomplished over the past few years.

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

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