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Location-Based Service and the Surveillance of Mobility: An Analysis of Privacy Risks in Canada

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University of Victoria




This report looks at ‘mobile’ surveillance and tracking technologies: existing products; the current state of product availability; actual and potential application; and target groups. It discusses ambiguous media coverage of ‘mobile’ surveillance issues, and poses the following questions: How are tracking devices being used or misused, and by whom? What are the claimed benefits of such devices and are they legitimate? Who is at risk of having their privacy violated and in what way? How can privacy rights be protected? Finally, it aims to get a better purchase on the privacy implications of location-based services that are currently available in the Canadian marketplace, and therefore what specific challenges might face the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and its provincial counterparts.

The authors provide product information and operational requirements and limitations on various technologies, such as those used for 911 emergency services (wired and wireless); Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFIDs); Event Data Recorders (EDRs, used as automotive ‘black boxes’); and Personal Location Devices (PLDs). More importantly, they examine the pros and the cons of their uses. For instance, while a PLD or RFID device can help parents track their children in an amusement park, it also could be used to locate, stalk and kidnap those same children. EDRs, installed in many new cars (unbeknownst to the vehicle’s driver) can help emergency services locate a vehicle if needed. Conversely, EDRs can be used by employers to track their ‘mobile’ employees (such as delivery drivers) unscrupulously, and have been used successfully by prosecutors in court cases.

Target groups identified include mobile workers; the elderly, disabled, and health care patients and caregivers; children and teenagers; drivers and individuals in professional and recreational activities; and prisoners and offenders. However, these technologies can be used by or against any individual. Locational data can be extraordinarily sensitive in that it can be monitored remotely, without the individual’s knowledge and consent. It may be collected continuously and stored indefinitely. The level of consumer education and experience is low, and the potential value of such information for government and business is enormous.

The authors conclude that there are potential challenges to existing privacy regulatory frameworks, and that attempts to apply standard information privacy principles to locational data are few. In Canada, federal and provincial privacy commissioners need to consider ways in which the general public should be educated about the capture, use and disclosure of locational information. They might also consider ways in which they might become involved more closely with the standards setting processes that have such profound and long-term impacts on surveillance practices.

This document is available in the following language(s):

English only

OPC Funded Project

This project received funding support through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Contributions Program. The opinions expressed in the summary and report(s) are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Summaries have been provided by the project authors. Please note that the projects appear in their language of origin.

Contact Information

University of Victoria
PO Box 1700 STN CSC
Victoria BC V8W 2Y2

Tel: (250) 721-7211
Fax: (250) 721-7212

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