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Privacy watchdog wants public input on networking sites

Canada's Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart pauses during a news conference in Ottawa August 27, 2009.

CHRIS WATTIE

Canada's privacy commissioner is launching a series of public consultations to investigate how personal data is being mined online through social networking sites.

The public has until Mar. 15 to file written submissions to Jennifer Stoddart, who is examining the privacy risks associated with the tracking, profiling and targeting of consumers online.

The consultations are being done in the lead-up to a review by Parliament of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

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Ms. Stoddart, who was not available for comment Monday, said in a statement that she hopes to examine "issues that we feel pose a serious challenge to the privacy of consumers, now and in the near future" and to promote debate about "the impact of these technological developments on privacy."

She cited Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Foursquare as examples of websites that collect mounds of personal information from users, mostly voluntarily.

The Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, which complained to Ms. Stoddart about some of Facebook's policies in 2008, applauded the decision to investigate possible privacy concerns about newer technologies.

"If people want to use these sites they should be able to do it, but you want to be able to make sure they're aware of [how it works]- it's about matching up user expectations to what's actually happening online," said staff lawyer Tamir Israel.

He said there are advantages to websites having access to detailed information about users.

"It helps, for example, [for websites]to be able to monetize themselves through advertising revenues instead of charging customers. We think that's good," he said.

"But we think there really needs to be protections in place because you are basically using the visitors' personal information and making money off it."

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Emerging social media trends include mobile access and location-based features. Foursquare encourages users to share details about where they go on a daily, including which shops and restaurants.

With many phones now using GPS locators, "it's going to be very easy to know where everybody is at every moment and I think there's going to be a lot of problems around that," Mr. Israel said.

"Law enforcement can access this kind of information if it's on someone's server, often just by asking or with some type of warrant. So they'll be able to know where everybody was at any given time."

Public discussion panels are being organized in Toronto in April and Montreal in May.

A future consultation will also examine the privacy implications of "cloud computing," which stores users' data online rather than on personal computers. Examples include Google's popular Gmail service and its suite of Google Docs applications - including a word processor and spreadsheet maker - which work entirely online.

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