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March 26, 2018

The following is an op-ed by Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien regarding recent media reports about allegations of misuse of personal information of Facebook users, versions of which were published by two newspapers.

Facebook allegations underscore deficiencies in Canada’s privacy laws

Daniel Therrien,
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

Allegations about the misuse of the personal information of 50 million Facebook users are shaking the very foundation on which our digital economy is based. Not only is consumer trust at risk, so too is trust in our democratic processes.

The global headlines we’ve seen in recent days also highlight a growing crisis for our privacy rights.

Before this incident, it might have been easy to think: Who cares if my personal information is out there and being used to try to sell me things?

Now, it’s plain to see that personal information may be analyzed for far more insidious purposes. This past week, we learned it was allegedly used to political ends – what next?

My office has launched a formal investigation into Facebook. We must of course be impartial and cannot pre-judge our findings. The allegations nonetheless shine a spotlight on weaknesses in our privacy laws.

Canadians want to enjoy the many benefits of the digital economy, but they rightly expect they can do so without fear that their rights will be violated and their personal information will be used against them. They want to trust that rules, legislation and government will protect them from harm.

Canada’s archaic privacy laws are not up to that task. Modern laws are urgently needed to protect us, as both citizens and consumers.

At the moment, for example, federal political parties are not subject to privacy laws. This is clearly unacceptable. Information about our political views is highly sensitive and therefore particularly worthy of protection. We must take action in the face of serious allegations that democracy is being manipulated through analysis of the personal information of voters. Bringing parties under privacy laws would be a step in the right direction.

Privacy risks are also growing in the business world. Our personal information is at the heart of the digital revolution transforming virtually every aspect of daily life. It is central to new online business models, and advances in the use of Big Data and artificial intelligence, which are necessary for Canada’s economic development.

Trust needed to allow the digital economy to flourish hinges on having an appropriate legal framework.

First and foremost, a modern law would better protect Canadians. But it would also offer companies the legal certainty they need in an increasingly complex environment, a certainty they do not have when relying on a notion of consent that is so stretched as to become meaningless.

We need legislation that ensures Canadians provide meaningful, informed consent for the collection and use of their personal information. But consent will not always be possible in the new world, where data may be used for multiple purposes not always known when it is collected. In these situations, organizations have an important role in responsibly managing personal information.

With that in mind, the law should allow my Office to go into an organization to independently confirm that the principles in our privacy laws are being respected – without necessarily suspecting a violation of the law. These inspection powers exist in other regulated industries; why isn’t our personal information worthy of the same protection?

The time has also come to provide my office with the power to make orders and issue fines – helping us to more effectively deal with those who refuse to comply with the law.

I’m very pleased that a Parliamentary committee recently issued a report calling for comprehensive changes to the federal private sector privacy law. I call on the government to act on that report.

An overwhelming majority of Canadians are concerned about how the digital revolution is infringing on their right to privacy. Recent events will only reinforce these concerns. Canadians deserve better. They deserve privacy laws adapted to the realities of the 21st century.

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