I’m very pleased to be able to post the following conversation with Jennifer Stoddart.
Since becoming Canada’s Privacy Commissioner in 2003, Commissioner Stoddart has undoubtedly raised the value of privacy in a time when security, trade, technology and consumer expectations have created a volatile atmosphere for our personal information. I might add that she has accomplished this admirable feat with passion and professionalism. As a result, Canadians have been exceptionally well-served.
Of course, I’d like to thank Commissioner Stoddart for agreeing to engage in this online Q & A conversation. If you’d like to learn more about Jennifer Stoddart, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (the “OPC”) or the issues raised in this conversation, I’d encourage you to visit the OPC’s website and blog.
Q. How did you get involved in the world of privacy?
A. Back in the spring of 2000, I happened to read an article in the New York Times Magazine by the noted American legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen. Prof. Rosen was explaining how personal privacy was being subtly eroded in the digital age. I was fascinated.
I was working at the Quebec Human Rights Commission at the time. The next week, I was asked to head up Quebec’s Access to Information and Privacy Commission, and that’s the field I’ve been in ever since.
Q. But it’s coming to an end.
A. Sadly. My seven-year term as Privacy Commissioner will wind up this year. On the plus side, though, I can look back with considerable pride at the progress we’ve made. The encroachments on privacy in this digital era really are staggering, but that doesn’t mean we’re letting them bowl us over.
Last year’s investigation into a complaint against Facebook was surely the most high-profile example of the kind of influence we have. And beyond that I would say that we’re making a meaningful difference, in countless other ways, every day of the year.
Q. What are the most rewarding aspects of being the Privacy Commissioner of Canada?
A. Certainly one of the most rewarding things for me is to know that our work matters, that it has a real and positive impact on the lives of Canadians.
As you know, it’s become fashionable in some circles to suggest that privacy is pretty much dead in this era of digital exhibitionism. But I think that’s totally wrong. And the best evidence for that was the worldwide response to our Facebook investigation.
Privacy may look different today than it did a generation – or even a decade – ago. But it remains an incredibly important and cherished value to Canadians. And to the extent that my Office can help protect that value, and advance privacy rights, I would say that is the most rewarding aspect of my job.
Q. What do you consider to be the greatest challenges for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada?
A. Our biggest challenges are the same that preoccupy data-protection authorities around the world: How to safeguard privacy rights in the face of so many rapidly changing technologies. You yourself have blogged about many of them – cloud computing, behavioural marketing, genetic technologies, to name just a few.
We’re seeing unimaginable quantities of data flash around the world, including to countries where data-protection laws are slim to non-existent. We’re also seeing technologies employed in the service of national security and law enforcement, but they’re guarded behind a wall of secrecy.
So the challenges are real, and they are huge.
Q. So how does an Office like yours keep up?
A. I guess the short answer is: By working smarter. We have zeroed in on four priority privacy challenges that are shaping and streamlining our work for the years ahead: information technology, genetic technology, national security and the protection of identity integrity.
We are re-engineering our internal processes to better handle the complaints and inquiries that come to our Office. We’re picking and choosing our privacy audits and our communications and public outreach efforts in order to maximize our impact. We’re ramping up our issuance of guidance, on the theory that an ounce of prevention outweighs a pound of cure. And we’re working with the global data-protection community, since so many of the challenges are international in scope.
But, most important of all, we’ve recently attracted an infusion of very bright, very knowledgeable – and in many cases young – new employees to key positions in our Office. They are really making a difference.
Q. If you could make a few recommendations for Canadian business leaders, what would you say?
A. First I’d thank them for having embraced PIPEDA, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act as it came into force over the past nine years. When I look at the situation of our neighbours to the south, where there is no single law at the federal level to protect the personal information of consumers in a commercial setting, I am deeply gratified by the way things can work up here.
Beyond that, I would encourage business leaders to continue to consult the guidelines we issue on specific topics for the purpose of clarifying the responsibilities of organizations under PIPEDA. And we invite them to work with us to fill any other information gaps they may have encountered.
I also want to take this opportunity to mention that data breach notification will become mandatory – and I suspect that will happen sooner rather than later. So I would encourage business leaders to start giving some thought now to how they can bring their processes into compliance.
Q. Do you have any “privacy-related” predictions for 2010?
A. I don’t think you need a crystal ball to conclude that national security will continue to dominate the privacy landscape in the year ahead. The controversy that erupted over Transport Canada’s deployment of millimetre-wave scanners at Canadian airports was just the first of the privacy-related issues that we can expect to be hearing about in 2010.
And stay tuned for more during and after the Vancouver Olympics. There, one of the big issues will revolve around the pervasive crowd surveillance measures, and what will happen with all the cameras and recordings after the flame is extinguished.
I’ll just mention two other issues of particular interest to our Office, because we will be consulting Canadians on them in the next few months. The first will focus on the tracking, profiling and targeting of consumers by marketers and other businesses, and we’ll be hosting consultation forums on that topic in Toronto in April and Montreal in May. Soon after, we’ll organize another forum to discuss the privacy implications of cloud computing.