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Encouraging reflection: Because a lake reflects the stars better than a river*

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Remarks at a Workshop — Part 1 — Rights Awareness at the 2nd Conference of Data Protection Commissioners from La Francophonie

Strasbourg, France
October 17, 2008

Address by  Nathalie Daigle
Legal Counsel, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada

*Quote from Théodore Jouffroy, French Philosopher, 1796–1842. (Translation)


Singers and song writers regard each song as an opportunity. An opportunity to evoke reflections about the subjects they address. Their lyrics can be so compelling that their music creates a space for dialogue between musicians and the public.

In the same way, authorities for the protection of personal information can evoke, through various means and methods, reflections about the issues surrounding privacy.

The following brief presents the ways in which the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has been encouraging reflection about these issues within the community. Parliament has entrusted the Privacy Commissioner of Canada with the mandate of acting as an ombudsman, a protector and champion of the right to privacy and the protection of Canadians’ personal data. The idea of taking responsibility as a community regarding privacy issues is central to the Canadian Commissioner’s mandate, as it is for other data privacy authorities within La Francophonie.  

This said, unless opportunities for discussion are created within civil society to highlight the responsibilities of government and business, these entities have little occasion to reflect upon their respective responsibilities and are sometimes reticent to speak out in public. Thus, as an extension of their mandate, personal information protection authorities can organize debates and discussions on various themes related to privacy to inform citizens of their rights.

After all, encouraging reflection can take us far and change behaviour. As Frederick II, King of Prussia (1712–1786) once said,

 “When my soldiers begin to think, not one of them will remain in the army.”

Identity, Privacy and the Need of Others to Know Who You Are: A Discussion Paper on Identity Issues

In Canada, discussion papers are often used as a means of encouraging reflection within the community. For example, a discussion paper on the role of identity within society, and privacy issues related to identity, was disseminated by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner in January 2008. The paper states that the public—not just technical experts, but also the general public—must be afforded the opportunity to understand the role that identity plays in society and the problems that it can present in privacy protection.

Fittingly, the discussion paper aims to enlighten the public about the way in which identity shapes our right to privacy. It describes the fundamental concepts around identity, including identification, authentification, attributes, common identifiers and tokens. All aspects of identity cannot be covered in this document since entire books (some highly technical) have been written on this subject. However, the discussion paper describes the basic notions of identity in sufficient detail so that people understand the connections between identity and respect for privacy and can contribute to discussions that lead to the adoption of public policies on identity issues.

Governments, businesses and citizens all have a (sometimes conflicting) stake in the policies, technologies and laws underlying identity. For private citizens, the main sources of conflict are based on invasions of privacy by some identity systems. People are apprehensive that some identity systems lead to data matching and large-scale profile building, both by governments and by the private sectorFootnote 1. Thus, this discussion paper provides Canadians with an overview of the critical issues that impact their lives, so that they can ask the following question when their personal information is being compiled: Do the potential advantages of an identity system project reasonably outweigh the disadvantages of invading their privacy?

Privacy issues: Encouraging reflection and involvement from young people

In Canada, contests have also been organized as a means of encouraging reflection among young people as a community.

(1) 2008–2009 essay competition: Think Privacy!

For example, the essay competition entitled Think Privacy! was launched this year to support the Office of the Privacy Commissioner’s work. This essay competition encourages students from law schools and legal studies programs to explore the challenges, critically reflect on issues and contribute to the expanding community of thought on privacy issues.

In this year’s competition, students may submit essays on any one of the Office’s four strategic priorities:

  • Information technology and privacy
  • National security and privacy
  • Identity integrity and protection
  • Genetic privacy

The author of the best essay will receive a cash prize. The winner will then be eligible to win further research funds to develop his or her essay into a publishable article, under the supervision of a privacy scholar appointed by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

(2) National video competition 2008

The My Privacy and Me National Video Competition 2008 is another example of a competition organized by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada as a means of encouraging reflection among youth as a community. On the Office’s Web site, privacy issues are first explained in brief terms to young people so that they understand the importance of protecting privacy, particularly with regard to social networking sites.

Then, to allow young people to pass this message on to other youth, the competition calls on them to create their own public interest announcements on privacy. They can present it any way they wish—recording or animating a film—provided that the project addresses an aspect of privacy. Possible subjects for young people might include: security cameras that record their every move in public places; the importance of thinking about what they post on sites like Facebook and MySpace; or how their favourite stores collect their personal information to create ads that specifically target their interests.

The 1–2-minute video will speak to other young people about how important privacy is. There is an additional incentive to participate: the school with the most entries will automatically win one of the best software design packages available on the market. A first prize will also be given to the person who wins the contest, as well as a second and third prize. Better yet, the winning video will be seen by large audiences of young people. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner will showcase the video on YouTube, and the Office’s main site.

Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada blog

The Office is also using a blog to generate conversation among young Canadians about privacy issues. On this blog, users can post their comments, include statistics, and share their points of view, ideas and more.

The purpose of the blog is to allow users to pool their experiences and address various subjects related to privacy. Generally speaking, users are inviting others to reflect upon research, theories and practical experiences. Thus, users sometimes call upon ideas, reflections and documents from several other practitioners and researchers in the field of privacy protection, which contributes to enriching and expanding blog content.

This kind of tool may be used as a sort of virtual classroom in which educators and learners are brought together through long-distance blog discussions. The fun and accessible organization and layout of the blog make it enjoyable to read in its entirety, and specific information may easily be obtained from the site. Since this blog deals with privacy from a variety of pedagogical and technical angles, it can be a starting point for discussions between the various users.

The blog can encourage reflection and insight into privacy issues and will, without a doubt, continue to do so as it develops over time.

Research projects funded by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada

In Canada, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner also contributes to funding research as a means of encouraging reflection on privacy issues. The Contributions Program was officially launched in 2004 by the Privacy Commissioner to support the research and promotion of personal information protection. This year, the Privacy Commissioner announced that nine organizations had been chosen to receive a total of $406,923 under the Contributions Program, which encourages the advancement of privacy rights.

The projects that are receiving funding cover a wide range of privacy issues—from surveillance and children online to the use of genetic information. Projects were selected based on their potential to encourage reflection and debate among readers, whoever they may beFootnote 2. Some projects will even culminate in public conferences and symposiums between researchers and other stakeholders interested in personal information protection, thereby expanding our scope of thought on contemporary issues in privacy. These projects will, in turn, produce a ripple effect for Privacy Commissioner-supported research on these issues.


When everyone has the same opinions, it really means that no one is thinking very hardFootnote 3. Indeed, as Aristotle so eloquently put it:

The ignorant assert, the experts doubt, the wise reflect.

Raising public awareness is therefore essential, since people need information to be able to make informed choices that will allow them to take control of their personal data. Above all, when it comes to protecting personal information, good judgement is key: better to think twice than to regret our actions after the fact.

Therefore, through various means and methods, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner is making efforts to help people avoid problems by providing advice on how to protect their personal data and by informing them about their rights. The Office’s methods to encourage reflection about privacy issues are just a few of the ways in which the development of ideas and discussions may be fostered. The Office’s Web site and the new site on youth privacy protection also provide practical tips for the community.

Ultimately, all means available should be used to encourage reflection on privacy issues. Indeed, the creative resources of the Francophonie’s data protection authorities should be brought to bear to achieve this goal.

So let’s encourage collective reflection together: Because a lake reflects the stars better than a river.

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