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Communications technologies putting privacy at risk, poll finds

Privacy Commissioner urges users of mobile devices, social networks and other technologies to better safeguard their personal information

Ottawa, August 25, 2011 – Canadians are heavy users of social networks and other communications technologies, but many are not taking basic steps to protect their personal information, a comprehensive new survey has found.

The telephone survey of 2,000 randomly selected adults, commissioned by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) and published today, found that three-quarters (74 percent) of respondents own at least one mobile communications device, such as a cell phone, smart phone or tablet.

However, only four in 10 use password locks for the devices, or adjust their settings to limit the sharing of personal information that may be stored on the devices.

The 2011 Canadians and Privacy Survey also found that one-third of Canadians use public Wi-Fi sites, such as those located at coffee shops and airports, where online communication may not always be protected by encryption. Of those, fully 85 percent admitted to some concern about possible risks to the security of their personal information.

The poll, conducted in late February and early March by Harris/Decima, also found that just over half (51 percent) of respondents use social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn. Fortunately, four in five said they take advantage of privacy settings that allow them to control access to their online content. Even so, 45 percent of all respondents who use social networking sites acknowledged that they are concerned about the associated risks to their privacy.

“Canadians are recognizing that their personal information is not safe in this new digital environment, unless they take concrete measures to protect it,” Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart observed. “Unfortunately, however, too few are taking even the most basic precautions, such as setting passwords on their mobile devices.”

“We encourage people to use passwords, encryption, privacy settings and every other available measure to safeguard their personal information, because the meaningful protection of privacy has to start with the individual.”

Indeed, the survey detected widespread concern about the impact of technology on people’s privacy. Four in 10 respondents felt that computers and the Internet pose a risk to their privacy, up from one-quarter (26 percent) in a similar survey just two years ago. Levels of concern about a range of technologies and applications, including cellphones, online banking, and credit and debit card transactions, all rose since 2009.

While younger Canadians aged 18 to 34 are the most enthusiastic users of technology, they are also the most likely to use available mechanisms to protect their privacy.

“This was a gratifying finding,” Commissioner Stoddart said. “Young people are sometimes stereotyped as digital exhibitionists who are quite uninhibited in posting comments and personal images. And yet, this new data shows that they not only care about privacy, they are actually leaders in protecting it.”

Other highlights of the poll include:

  • Six in 10 respondents felt that their personal information enjoys weaker protection than it did 10 years ago. Indeed 65 percent said the protection of personal information will be among the most pressing issues confronting Canadians in the decade ahead.
  • Canadians are deeply suspicious about the collection and use of personal information by public- and private-sector organizations. Only 22 percent of respondents said governments are taking their obligations to protect privacy seriously, and 14 percent said businesses take their responsibilities seriously.
  • An overwhelming majority want tough sanctions against organizations that fail to properly protect the privacy of individuals. More than eight in 10 respondents wanted to see measures such as publicly naming offending organizations, fining them, or taking legal action against them.
  • There was widespread concern about businesses that request too much personal information, don’t keep it secure, sell it to other organizations, or use it to send spam or make other unsolicited marketing contact. About nine in 10 respondents found such practices disturbing.
  • More than eight in 10 respondents (83 percent) said Internet companies should ask their customers for permission to track their online behaviour and Internet usage.
  • With respect to the personal information that Canadians provide at airports and border crossings, a substantial majority (85 percent) said they are somewhat or very concerned when it is shared with foreign authorities.
  • More than eight in 10 respondents (82 percent) opposed giving police and intelligence agencies the power to access e-mail records and other Internet usage data without a warrant from the courts.
  • There was little appetite for genetic testing to find out whether people have a heightened risk of developing certain diseases. Only one-quarter (26 percent) of respondents said they are somewhat or very interested in such services.
  • Only 30 percent of respondents felt they had a good or very good grasp of their privacy rights under the law. Still, three-quarters (74 percent) of respondents felt they are doing a good or very good job of protecting their own privacy. Younger respondents were the least likely to rate their knowledge of privacy rights as very good, or to have confidence in their ability to protect it.

The OPC commissioned the poll in order to gauge public understanding and awareness of privacy, particularly as it is affected by the Office’s four priority issues: information technology, public safety, identity integrity and protection, and genetic technology. Similar surveys were conducted in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009.

The complete survey, which has a margin of error of +/- 2.2 percent, 19 times out of 20, can be found on our website at www.priv.gc.ca.

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada is mandated by Parliament to act as an ombudsman and guardian of privacy in Canada. The Commissioner enforces two federal laws for the protection of personal information: the Privacy Act, which applies to the federal public sector; and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which applies to commercial activities in the Atlantic provinces, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Territories.  Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia each has its own law covering the private sector.  Even in these provinces, PIPEDA continues to apply to the federally regulated private sector and to personal information in interprovincial and international transactions.

To view the final report: 2011 Canadians and Privacy Survey (PDF version). 

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For more information, please contact:
Heather Ormerod
Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada
Tel: (613) 947-8416
E-mail: heather.ormerod@priv.gc.ca