Whether it’s filling out a tax form, posting your birthday on Facebook, or providing retailers with your contact information, Canadians are regularly handing over personal data.
But while some Canadians are refusing to divulge extra details in protest, hoping to gain more control over their personal information, others are demanding more benefits for handing over the information that is increasingly being bought and sold by organizations.
“Why should someone necessarily know a lot of information about you unless it’s for a specific purpose that is beneficial to you?” says John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), an Ottawa-based consumer advocacy group.
Canadians may be less concerned when it’s the government, since they provide services such as health care and education, Lawford says. However, when it’s for private companies, such as advertisers and research firms, “why should they have it at all?” Lawford argues.
According to a recent Microsoft Corp. report, consumers are shifting their focus “away from privacy to their digital identity and the right to control their narrative.”
The more consumers understand how their data is used and how they can benefit from it, the more willing they are to share it. The report says 77 per cent of Canadians know they can exchange data for personal rewards or benefits, up from 68 per cent surveyed last year.
In the meantime, more companies are turning to data to get to know their customer base. There are also certain businesses, known as data brokers, which collect personal information about consumers and resell it to other organizations.
“Data is a form of currency right now,” says Adam Kardash, a lawyer and partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, who specializes in privacy and data management.
“We are in a new data environment with an exploding number of companies that, in one way or another, are data companies.”
Kardash says many of his clients come looking for ways to leverage data they collect, but in a way that is both legal and ethical, to maintain their customers’ trust.
“There is a perception out there that I think is a little torqued, that it’s a Wild West frontier. It’s not accurate,” he says.
There are various pieces of legislation that govern how data is collected and used. The key one is the Personal Information Protection and Electronics Document Act (PIPEDA), which applies to all organizations that collect, use and disclose personal information as part of their business activities. The goal of PIPEDA is to balance privacy rights and the need for companies to collect, use and disclose personal information for “legitimate business purposes,” according to a recent report prepared last fall by the research group of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
The report compares Canada’s system to the U.S., and suggests Canada is stricter as a result of its “comprehensive privacy and regulatory compliance framework,” which has deterred American companies from setting up in Canada.
“Nonetheless, the challenges associated with emerging privacy trends and issues means that privacy remains an ever important concept in balancing the legitimate commercial needs against the privacy rights of Canadians,” the report states.
Some Canadian data brokers cited in the report include credit bureaus such as Equifax and TransUnion, Cornerstone Group of Companies and InfoCanada, all of which cite their compliance with PIPEDA and other consumer legislation.
Companies such as Canada Post and Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) also sell some of their data to public and public sector organizations.
Michael Weiss, vice president of marketing research firm Environics Analytics, said his company uses “privacy-friendly data,” such as postal codes from Canada Post and aggregated tax data from the CRA.
A CRA spokesperson said the data it sells is clustered and “rigorously reviewed to make sure it is not possible to identify taxpayer information.” The CRA says the information is used by private or public sector organizations for research, to improve service delivery, or for innovation.
Kardash says companies that both use and sell data need to be wary of how they use it, or face backlash from the public, which can be a major blow to their reputation and revenues.
“The moment you start using highly sensitive data in a way that might not be trusted by the end user is the moment the product is no longer in existence,” Mr. Kardash said.
For some companies, this advice has become a focal point, with some businesses highlighting their data collection process as a way to reassure customers that their products can be trusted. An example is the UFile tax software company developed by Dr Tax Software, a division of Thomson Reuters.
The company says it doesn’t sell, rent or lease mailing lists or other consumer data.
“We do not share information from the tax files of our end-users and have no intent to do so in the future,” says Eric Neveu, senior director, professional and customer software & services at Thomson Reuters (Canada). “We take the security and confidentiality of our users very seriously. We want people to feel comfortable using our online products.”
Lawford of the PIAC encourages Canadians to be cognizant of what data they’re providing organizations across all sectors, ask why the information and is needed, and what it will be used for.
He would also like to see more companies to erase data after a few years, especially when it’s outdated or no longer valid.
“You have to make companies accountable,” said Lawford.
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This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with Thomson Reuters. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.