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Privacy Commissioner launches public consultations on emerging technologies

Consultations to focus on online tracking, profiling and targeting of consumers by business

OTTAWA, January 18, 2010 — The Privacy Commissioner of Canada announced today an upcoming consultation with Canadians on privacy issues related to the online tracking, profiling and targeting of consumers by marketers and other businesses. This will be the first in a series of public consultations focused on emerging technological trends that are likely to have a significant impact on the privacy of Canadians.

“The consultation will equip the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada with a deeper understanding of the practice of tracking, profiling and targeting consumers online,” said Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart. “It will also provide a forum for the exploration of the privacy implications related to this modern industry practice, and the protections that Canadians expect. Our goal, therefore, is to shine a spotlight on this evolving technological trend.”

A second consultation on the privacy issues emerging from the growing movement toward cloud computing will be announced in the near future.

Online consumer tracking

In the practice of online consumer tracking, data about the browsing habits of individuals is collected through digital markers such as cookies. Additional data may be gathered using other technologies, such as deep packet inspection and the global positioning systems (GPS) common in many mobile communications devices.

Individuals themselves, moreover, volunteer significant amounts of personal information, especially through their participation in social networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn, and other popular web-based services such as foursquare.

Personal data can be collated and mapped against other types of information to generate detailed personal profiles. Such profiles are valuable to marketers and other enterprises that want to target products or services to people of a particular demographic or with specific purchasing preferences. Companies may also use the information to evaluate the popularity or success of their online products or services.

Proponents say that online consumer tracking, profiling and targeting supports free Internet content, allows people to receive more relevant advertising and discount offers, and promotes the development of useful services. For example, in conjunction with data from sources such as GPS and cellular networks, users can enjoy location-based services that recommend nearby restaurants or keep tabs on the whereabouts of friends.

Critics, however, warn that people may be unaware that their personal information is being collected, and do not understand how it is used. They also argue that, even when the information is anonymous, it can sometimes be combined with other information to identify individuals. 

Consultation process begins

The consultation process begins today with a call for participation by interested parties. The Office is inviting written submissions, which will be accepted until March 15, and is also seeking expressions of interest from individuals wanting to take part in formal discussion panels to be held in Toronto in April and Montreal in May. The intent is to canvass a broad range of views from business, government, academics, consumer associations and civil society.

The consultation will give the Office a comprehensive view of the privacy risks associated with the online tracking, profiling and targeting of consumers, and contribute to the development of new public education and outreach materials. It will also help shape the Office’s input into the next parliamentary review of the private-sector Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada is mandated by Parliament to act as an ombudsman, advocate and guardian of privacy and the protection of personal information rights of Canadians.

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For more information, contact:

Anne-Marie Hayden
Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
Tel: (613) 995-0103

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