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The five-year project will examine, among other things, how organizations track individuals`activities and social media use.Thinkstock Images/Getty Images

A group of prominent researchers has signed on to study what information is being collected about Canadians and what it's being used for, saying the public remains largely in the dark on the mass accumulation of personal data.

The five-year project, which will be led by the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., will examine the use of what's known as "big data."

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, University of Victoria and B.C.'s privacy commissioner are among the organizations that have joined the project as partners.

Micheal Vonn, the civil liberties association's policy director, said Tuesday that big data consists of massive, complex data sets. The decisions made from such data, she said, can adversely affect individual rights and threaten privacy – though much about the collection of the data and its use is unknown.

"Big-data surveillance is one of the leading human-rights issues of the 21st century," Ms. Vonn said in an interview.

Among other things, she said, the project will examine how organizations track individuals' activities and social media use.

"We have one stream that is devoted to looking at big data in the context of national security. Another stream is devoted to what's called marketing, but will also include things that many people don't see in marketing, like … political parties' databases and how they go about targeting the electorate," she said.

The findings are expected to be released at different intervals, with the first release slated for next spring, she said.

The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C. said in a statement that big data uses complex algorithms to identify patterns, predict outcomes and support decision-making.

Elizabeth Denham, the privacy commissioner, said it is difficult for individuals to know how the data are being used.

"Citizens have questions about how big data is being used by police, by political parties, in health care, education, social services and in other areas that touch their lives. This project will probe big-data surveillance and analyze its scope, effectiveness and implications," she said in the statement.

Ms. Denham added that the project will identify new policy and legislative approaches to ensure citizens retain their privacy rights in the face of new technologies.

The study is being made possible by a $2.5-million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

David Lyon, director of the Surveillance Studies Centre and a Queen's professor, said in an interview that greater focus is needed on the ethics of big data.

"A lot is said about the volume, velocity, variety in the big-data world, but we're concerned particularly about the vulnerabilities – particular groups or persons who may be disadvantaged through their exposure to big-data practices," he said.

"We want to focus on the ethical questions, the social consequences, and do so in discussion with those who are using big data for all kinds of worthy purposes within education, welfare, health care and so on and so forth."

Ms. Vonn said information released by U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden has shown the impact that mass collection of data can have.

"Telephone, Internet use, information – you gather all of this on a vast scale, you run algorithmic analysis for national security intelligence and you come up with people on watch lists. Not only was this once completely hidden – the fact that it was happening – but even knowing that it's happening, we can't question the logic that is employed in order to make any of these determinations," she said.

"So one of the questions is, should this be allowed in the first place, should governments be able to secretly or not secretly gather all of this information? But secondly, what they're gathering in terms of the analysis they're employing, is that even legitimate?"

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