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Canadians risk "surrendering their privacy and freedom for loyalty points"

OTTAWA, October 19,1999-In his 1998-99 annual report released today, Privacy Commissioner Bruce Phillips urges Canadians not to surrender their privacy and freedom in exchange for speed, convenience and exaggerated claims of protecting personal safety.

Citing a spate of articles in mainstream publications that forecast "the end of privacy", Phillips concedes that privacy is "struggling" under the onslaught of new information technology. The threat comes not from some cataclysm but "the gradual withering of our individual control of personal information and our passive or unknowing acceptance of the longer-term consequences." Phillips sees hope in the government's promised legislation to protect personal information in the private sector.

"The immediate practical value of a price discount from a shopper's loyalty card is far easier to grasp than the long-term implications of the incremental collection of personal information. But each apparently trivial disclosure accumulates until our life history and pattern of living become available for use and misuse by the corporation and the state. We will have sold our souls for a few loyalty points."

Phillips also cautions government that relying on surveillance for effective enforcement of new programs wantonly disregards the core values of a civilized society. It simply regiments everyone in the interest of catching the few cheats-who will soon learn to beat the system.

Phillips argues that we can build privacy and data security into information technologies if we are determined to do so-"human values, not technology, must drive the bus". Although Bill C-54, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, died on the order paper at the end of last session, the government undertook to re-introduce the bill early this session. The bill gives individuals control over their personal information and is particularly vital for the safe conduct of electronic commerce.

"The bill represents considerable ingenuity, and not a little courage", Phillips says. "It is no magic bullet.But we must begin by doing something and doing it quickly. If we fiddle in the face of lobbying and jurisdictional disputes, Canadians' privacy and the business opportunities on-line will burn," he concludes.

Some highlights of the report include:

  • A layperson's guide to Part 1 of Bill C-54, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, and comments on the bill's excluding information gathered for journalism and law enforcement;
  • Observations on proposed "improvements" to the Social Insurance Number, and cautions against its mutation into "an internal passport";
  • An update on the Health Infoway and the risks it poses of building a path to intrusive health and lifestyle surveillance;
  • Summaries of the Commissioner's submissions on the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) Act, the Preclearance Act, the DNA Identification Act, and the review of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act.
  • Selected cases from the 1,925 complaint investigations completed in 1998-99.

The complete text of the report is available on the Office's Web site at http://www.priv.gc.ca

Information: Sally Jackson (613) 995-8566, 1(800) 267-0441

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