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Illustration by Jim Atherton for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Illustration by Jim Atherton for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Technology

The end of online privacy Add to ...

If a new graduate searches for financial-services jobs in Toronto, and then gives up for a while and goes elsewhere to read the news, Workopolis could continue showing her ads for financial-service jobs in Toronto on the New York Times website.

However, the company says personal information included on users' résumés is highly protected and not used in targeting.

"The last thing you want to do is give the seeker the impression that Big Brother is standing over them. That's an eerie experience," said Mario Bottone, vice-president of marketing at Workopolis. "Targeted advertising is about your behaviour. It's not about, 'Hey, your name is Jim and you live in Oakville and have two kids, and here's a product you might like.'"

The problem is that there is little incentive for companies to collect less data about consumers.

Increasingly, advertisers' money is flowing to targeted ads; information about the type of consumers that visit a site, and when, and what they look at, can make a website's ad space far more attractive, and therefore more likely to sell.

"Advertisers don't just want to send their message out into the ether any more," says Paula Gignac, president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada (IAB), an industry group that represents marketers. "Any [company] that can give them the best target with the most that's known about the type of user that you're going to be reaching with the ad ... will get the highest rate."

CONSENTING ADULTS - OR AT LEAST THEY SEEM TO BE

Yet the federal privacy watchdog disputes the idea that consumer-data collection is truly anonymous.

"As the technologies become more sophisticated, not only are there greater amounts of information collected about you - the meshing of the different actors who are collecting information means that it is much easier for them to constitute a profile of you," says the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Jennifer Stoddart.

"Even if they say they're doing it anonymously, at some point they've got so much different and complementary information, they basically fill in the dots," thereby turning individual pieces of non-identifying information into a mosaic sufficient to identify an individual, Ms. Stoddart says.

The commissioner's office held a series of discussions with industry leaders on the topic of consumer data tracking in March and April, and will publish a report on those talks in the fall. It will also ask for comments from the public as it prepares to review privacy legislation next year.

"I think we're going to have to find a way to regulate this, and I think more strictly," Ms. Stoddart says.

On the Web, consent is a tricky idea. Companies have to say how they collect and use data, but lengthy privacy policies require users with the patience to parse out exactly how that information is being shared - sometimes with partners who have entirely different privacy policies, says John Lawford, a research analyst and lawyer with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) in Ottawa. How many people actually read sites' privacy policies before clicking "I agree"?

"If you are at a retail website, it's going to be a member of a number of affiliate-advertising networks: Doubleclick, probably Microsoft One, and one or two others. It's going to place at least one cookie, and then report back to [its]affiliate networks what you did," Mr. Lawford says. "There's effectively a perfect, almost biographical sketch of you somewhere in these affiliate computers, but it's not identified by your actual name."

In June, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner awarded a $50,000 grant to PIAC to study how likely it is that supposedly unidentifiable consumer sketches could be "re-identified," constituting a full personal profile that is no longer anonymous. Mr. Stoddart hopes to use the information to fill gaps in Canadian law.

Ms. Gignac, however, argues that consumers already are well protected by Canadian law: The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act deals with consumer-data collection, and typically requires that companies have individuals' consent before they use that data or make it available to others.

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