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Privacy, Security and the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games

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Remarks at the 2009 Reboot Conference – Pre-Conference Workshop

Victoria, B.C.
February 2, 2009

Address by Jennifer Stoddart
Privacy Commissioner of Canada



I’d like to welcome you all to this workshop sponsored by my Office on “Privacy, Security and the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games.” 

Assembled here are some of the leading experts and thinkers in the field of privacy and security.  Today’s discussion will undoubtedly be most interesting and insightful.

I would like to thank Colin Bennett and his team at the University of Victoria for organizing this workshop for my Office.

Showcasing Canadian Values and the Right to Privacy

The issue being discussed today is unprecedented for Canada. 

These Games should be a wonderful, joyous occasion for Canada.  They will be an opportunity for us to show the world the natural wonders of British Columbia and the warmth of our people. 

At the same time, the Vancouver Games will be, in terms of visibility and attendance, the first mega-event in Canada in the post-9/11 era.  They will test our security and law enforcement agencies, who will have to balance security requirements and civil liberties.  

Mega-events like the Olympic Games provide host countries with the opportunity to showcase the values they hold dear—values that define who they are and how their citizens relate to one another, their governments, and the world. 

One such important value in Canada is the right to privacy.  The central question this workshop will be tackling is a challenging one: How do you balance the need for security and privacy?

This very question is why we have identified national security as one of the OPC’s four policy priorities. 

My Office realizes that Olympic Games pose unique and difficult challenges from a public security perspective.  We all remember the tragic events of the Munich Games of 1972, where terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes.  And more recently in 1996, a bomb was detonated at the Seattle Games, killing 2 people and injuring more than 100.

And yet, the duty of governments to provide for the security of citizens must, in democratic societies, be tempered by the values that underpin our way of life. 

That is why the right to privacy must be upheld, even during mega-events like the Olympic Games, where the threat to security is higher than usual.

As I stated in my opening message to the latest Privacy Act annual report: “There may be some cases where privacy protections must give way to protect a greater good, be it public health, consumer safety or national security.  However, we should only be asked to make this sacrifice when it is clear that the promised outcome – such as safer air travel – will actually be achieved and that there is no other less privacy-invasive option that would allow us to reach the goal.”

A Question of “Legacy”

Mega-events raise numerous questions from the point of view of how security measures deployed during the event might impinge on privacy.  I will leave it to today’s first panel to address these questions.

I would like to open today’s proceedings, however, by touching briefly on the issue of the “legacy” of the Vancouver Games, which the last panel will discuss.

Experience has shown that Olympic Games and other mega-events can leave behind a pernicious legacy.  That’s because large-scale security surveillance systems, initially installed for security at mega-events, often remain long after the event is over. 

A case in point is the Athens Games of 2004.  These were the first post-9/11 summer Olympic Games, and the security apparatus that was set up in sporting venues across Greece was unlike anything ever seen before in terms of their sophistication.  

In late 2007, the head of the Greek Data Protection Authority and three of his senior officials resigned in protest over the government’s insistence to continue to use closed-circuit cameras, originally installed in and around Athens for the Games.  The Greek Data Protection Authority had ruled that Olympic CCTV cameras could be used after the Games, for the limited purpose of monitoring traffic.  But law enforcement saw things differently; they wanted to use the nearly 350 cameras much more broadly, to monitor the activities of citizens, notably during public gatherings and demonstrations.

What will be the legacy of the Vancouver Games?  Will the equipment and surveillance systems installed for these Olympics be removed once the Games are over?  Will the residents of Vancouver and the lower mainland wind up living surrounded by an array of surveillance systems that they neither want nor need? Will the Vancouver games be the test-bed for new identity technology, ever more precise in its ability to record citizen data, facilitating the introduction of a provincial or Canada-wide ID card?


As I stated in my message in the latest Privacy Act annual report: “…in our democracy, benevolent intentions appear to be pushing us towards a surveillance society.”  We have to ensure that security at the Vancouver Olympic Games—however important—does not take us irretrievably down this path.

It is critical that civil society as well as academia engage government and law enforcement agencies on the issues arising out of security and privacy at the Vancouver Games.  We need to do this to ensure that the Games reflect not just Canadian athletic prowess and organizational know-how, but an innovative way to encapsulate democratic values in a secure setting.

Thank you.  I now turn the floor to the first panel.

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