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Jennifer Stoddart
Jennifer Stoddart

The Lunch

Jennifer Stoddart: making your privacy her business Add to ...

Canada's fearless privacy cop is having an awkward public moment.

It's not because I've asked Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart about government secrets gushing from the leaky pipe that is Wikileaks. Or creepy Internet stalkers who collect personal information from giant Web utilities such as Facebook or Google. Or even because I stuck my nose into her private life.

No, Ms. Stoddart is agitated because I'm fumbling through the flotsam of my purse in search of a misplaced credit card to pay for lunch at Play, the latest irreverent eatery from award-winning Ottawa restaurateur, Steve Beckta.

Noooooo," she protests. "I cannot allow this."

Slapping a purple wallet the size of a small cabbage on the table, she yanks out a series of green and blue bills to pay for lunch, ignoring the receipt. The lady who rescued the Privacy Commission from a previous administration's near-fatal expense account scandal is paying for a lunch out of her own pocket. It absolutely won't do to have a journalist pay for her meal.

"I must be like Caesar's wife," she says, glancing quickly behind herself at the fortress-like U.S. embassy that faces the restaurant, "above suspicion!"

That such a formidable regulator would be so agitated about a modest lunch bill won't surprise anyone in the nation's capital, a buttoned-down town where bureaucrats post expense accounts on government websites and cabinet ministers issue puritanical edicts about what civil servants can and cannot consume. But to a frequenter of Bay Street watering holes, where deal dogs don't blink at lunch bills that can cost more than some Canadians' monthly mortgage, her momentary panic is a revelation.

It's one of one of many surprises that the elegant 61-year-old, whose athletic frame is wrapped in a flowing black wool sweater, serves up over a lunch of "sweet mama squash soup," seared Digby scallops and catfish tacos.

The biggest stunner is that Canada's privacy cop, who is quietly dismissed in some Silicon Valley circles as an old-fashioned scold, is something of an Internet rebel. The same regulator who famously stared down Facebook and forced it to tighten privacy standards for 500 million global users, is in fact, she shares, an early advocate for access to information on the Internet.

Her technology epiphany occurred in the early 2000s when Ms. Stoddart travelled to Britain as the president of Quebec's Commission on Access to Information to get a close look at the country's innovative access-to-information laws.

"It blew my mind," she says of her meetings with regulatory, academic and archival leaders who were leading the global charge to put Britain's government documents, regulations, archival data and service information on the World Wide Web.

"I came back and told my staff, 'this is it, the Brits have figured it out.' "

What they figured out, and what continues to shape her thinking as a regulator, is that the Internet is a powerful tool that can ensure greater transparency and accountability in governments and other organizations.

"Governments shouldn't hoard information. The information is there and it belongs to the people," she says. "Information and the manipulation of information is the key to power. Those who can control the information can influence society enormously. The more accurate the flow of information the … more productive we can be."

How can this philosophy be reconciled with the woman who publicly frets about people who share too much personal information on the Web and the companies who harvest their data?

Part of the answer is that Jennifer Stoddart has always been something of a maverick. After an early career as an academic specializing in Quebec social history, she shifted her pragmatic mind to a law degree so that she could help modernize regulations standing in the way of gender, cultural and employment equity. By the time she was tapped as Canada's Privacy Commissioner in 2003, she had devoted more than 20 years to promoting the rights of women, human rights, and access to information.

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