Canadian Technophobia: Privacy Commissioner vs. Google

How is it that, as individuals, Canadians are such avid internet users, but our institutions, governments and companies are somewhere between technophobic and luddite?
Take for example the recent story Alison L. sent me from Stephen Taylor‘s blog in which he comment on this CBC news story. The story? That Canada’s Privacy Commissioner has written Google about her concern that Google Maps’ Street View functionality may violate Canada’s federal privacy legislation if it is implemented here.

For the uninitiated Google (and/or a partner firm) creates this street map feature by literally driving a car along a street with a camera on its roof and it takes a photo about every 5 seconds. This allows the user to “see” what the street looks like from various 5 meter increments. The commissioners concern is:

“Our Office considers images of individuals that are sufficiently clear to allow an individual to be identified to be personal information within the meaning of PIPEDA [the privacy act]”

One wonders where the Privacy Commissioner has been for the last 5, 10 or even 25 years (ok, ok, I concede that the privacy laws are relatively new… but still!). As Stephen points out – why hasn’t the Privacy Commissioner shut down Flickr? Indeed, virtually all Web 2.0 content could be suspect. It might be safer to shut down whole swaths of the web.

What’s interesting to me is that it is a website that has prompted this discussion. When this problem existed in traditional forms of media – ones’ presumably the commissioner is more comfortable with – it didn’t bother her.

City TV and Muchmusic are famous for doing interviews while showing live streetscapes in the background. Given the bar the commissioner has set, isn’t this footage illegal? And if we really want to take it to an extreme… what about the street level cameras on apartment buildings that enable people to see who is ringing their doorbell. Many of these camera’s are always on and can be watched from tenants TVs… if the Privacy Commissioners above statement is the standard we are to use… isn’t this a violation of privacy as well? Shouldn’t all these cameras be unplugged?

The above example highlights the prevailing attitude many organizations in Canada have towards the internet: move slowly, move cautiously, and, if possible, don’t move at all. Don’t believe me? Or perhaps we can hope the problem is limited to government? Well… Katie M. recently sent me this survey of Canada and the internet. According to it Canada is on par, and even ahead of, the United States when it comes to internet – and in particular broadband – access and usage. Even our blogosphere is strong. And yet, despite all this, e-commerce in Canada lags far behind the US. Name a single Canadian retailer with a strong online presence. Many Canadian stories don’t even allow people to shop online.

Why is this? Who knows. Could it be a weak tech sector in Canada? A business culture that is shockingly conservative? A brain drain of tech savvy people to San Francisco, Boston and other technology centres? A lack of venture capital? I don’t know.

What I do know is that this should concern Canadians. Individually, we are leaving our government and large corporations in the dust. At some point our capacity to innovate, to seek social change, to capitalize on economic opportunities will be limited by their narrow vision and understanding of the internet phenomenon.

4 thoughts on “Canadian Technophobia: Privacy Commissioner vs. Google

  1. Kevin McArthur

    I would not go nearly as far to criticize the privacy commisioner on this issue; others sure, but warning google here was more than correct.

    Canada has already decided, a long time ago, that pictures taken, where someone is included ‘incidentally’ in a photograph is not an issue, either for royalties or privacy.

    However, we’ve also decided, within our privacy legislation that it is not ok to collect data you dont need, about people, where the collection is avoidable. Google Street View does not meet the test of minimal, informed and consentual collection. Picturing people in front of womens shelters, strip bars or the unemployment office is not neccessary collection for the operation of street view, and they are more than capible of blurring faces and license plates to hide this personal info.

    The precident set here is also critical; currently we have CCTV and ALPR programs that are being piloted based on the argument that you have no privacy in public. Google re-enforces this view.

    But the problem comes from the databasing, data mining, and eyeball expansion of the data; that one person could have seen it, in a non-permanant format, is simply _not_ the same as if 1 million people can see it, and it’s stored for years. It’s certainly not the same as having a cctv or alpr camera follow you around. But thats what is at issue here, and it is an argument as much about the scale and purpose of the collection as it is about what is being collected.

    So technophobic, not really, just taking a stance against the surveilance society. Privacy is not a matter of absolutes and if we discuss it as such, then we are doomed to absolute, and total, surveilance of our every-day lives.

    Reply
  2. Kevin McArthur

    I would not go nearly as far to criticize the privacy commisioner on this issue; others sure, but warning google here was more than correct.Canada has already decided, a long time ago, that pictures taken, where someone is included ‘incidentally’ in a photograph is not an issue, either for royalties or privacy.However, we’ve also decided, within our privacy legislation that it is not ok to collect data you dont need, about people, where the collection is avoidable. Google Street View does not meet the test of minimal, informed and consentual collection. Picturing people in front of womens shelters, strip bars or the unemployment office is not neccessary collection for the operation of street view, and they are more than capible of blurring faces and license plates to hide this personal info.The precident set here is also critical; currently we have CCTV and ALPR programs that are being piloted based on the argument that you have no privacy in public. Google re-enforces this view.But the problem comes from the databasing, data mining, and eyeball expansion of the data; that one person could have seen it, in a non-permanant format, is simply _not_ the same as if 1 million people can see it, and it’s stored for years. It’s certainly not the same as having a cctv or alpr camera follow you around. But thats what is at issue here, and it is an argument as much about the scale and purpose of the collection as it is about what is being collected.So technophobic, not really, just taking a stance against the surveilance society. Privacy is not a matter of absolutes and if we discuss it as such, then we are doomed to absolute, and total, surveilance of our every-day lives.

    Reply
  3. David Eaves Post author

    Good points – Mike B. dropped me an IM saying essentially the same thing.

    For those interested in reading the letter itself, it can be found here:
    http://www.privcom.gc.ca/media/let/let_070911_01_e.asp

    What I’d like to see from the commissioner is a clearer articulation of what the concern is, and a vision of the service that would comply with the law.

    So for example, would it be ok if Google simply blurred the people in its images? If not, why? The letter is pretty ambiguous about whether this would be an acceptable solution.

    My hope is that this letter is the beginning of a dialogue between, Google and the Commissioner…

    Reply
  4. David Eaves

    Good points – Mike B. dropped me an IM saying essentially the same thing. For those interested in reading the letter itself, it can be found here:http://www.privcom.gc.ca/media/let/let_070911_0…What I’d like to see from the commissioner is a clearer articulation of what the concern is, and a vision of the service that would comply with the law.So for example, would it be ok if Google simply blurred the people in its images? If not, why? The letter is pretty ambiguous about whether this would be an acceptable solution.My hope is that this letter is the beginning of a dialogue between, Google and the Commissioner…

    Reply

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