Category Archives: Privacy

Oh privacy, rest in peace

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The assaults on our personal space, our thoughts – both grand and small – have become, in recent years, the principle battleground of democratic debate.

Do we deserve our privacy, or shall we surrender it to the onslaught of media? Do we expect full accountability from our elected leaders, or shall we give them a free pass even as their spy agencies harvest every morsel of information about us for uses not yet articulated?

We have become a “live-in-public” polity. Anyone who doubts this might cogitate for a while on the way mainstream celebrities (and their Twitter monkeys) manage their various images through social media.

Consider, for example, the strange case of Ashton Kutcher – a Hollywood actor of some fame and fortune. He reached out to his fans a couple of months ago to beg their support for his mindful campaign against the paparazzi that plague him and his loved ones.

According to a Fox News report in May, “Ashton Kutcher has taken to social media to blast news outlets for publishing paparazzi photos of his 7-month-old daughter, Wyatt. The actor publicly slammed publications on Twitter after photos emerged of a casually dressed Kutcher carrying his baby girl in his arms, with a clear view of her smiling face. The paparazzi pics were taken while Kutcher and partner Mila Kunis were visiting the seaside town of Carpinteria, Calif., with Kunis’ parents.”

Tweeted Mr. Kutcher: “Why is it so hard for publications to respect that I would like the identity of my child kept private for safety reasons?”

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because you have 16 million followers and you can’t stop talking about yourself.

The actor’s dilemma mirrors our own. In a world where professional value becomes a commodity through personal revelation (even if the cry is for privacy) reason is antiquated. And what becomes antiquated becomes suspect. Suddenly, your business is mine, and mine is yours.

Naturally, you and I have never met, never shook hands, never looked each other in our bloodshot, media-savvy eyes. We’ve never actually conducted a private conversation about what really matters to either of us. We just tweet in series of 147 characters of callow, bland absurdities.

As we do, of course, the world is cloud-banking every stupid thing we say for only one reason: Our love of the confessional pyre, the altar of unsolicited solicitude, to which we happily supplicate ourselves, turns its cranks; and, in so doing, manufactures more ways to penetrate our secret spaces.

We claim our right to privacy in public even as we squander it, undermine it, and, finally, render it meaningless by opening our big, fat mouths about the utterly inconsequential just in time for the next crop of spin-doctors, operating on both private and state allowances, to turn our choice words against ourselves.

It happens all the time. Whole networks in the mainstream media are dedicated to unveiling the “larger” truth behind a pebble of personal information “leaked” to them, lest the pillars of democracy topple in the absence of some celebrity’s full disclosure about the style and shape of his underwear.

And, of course, just like Mr. Kutcher, we lap it up, even as we despise it.

In a Daily Mail Online piece from 2011, the actor “became the first Twitter user to reach one million followers. But, it seems, Ashton Kutcher has finally fallen out of love with Twitter. The 33-year-old actor handed over the control of his account to his management team.”

Really, who could have blamed him?

But, then, what’s stopping the rest of us?

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New shenanigans for spy versus spy

 

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Leave it to a once and likely future candidate for leader of the free world to admit what was previously inadmissible in polite company. Yes, Virginia, the world is full of creeps, spooks and spies, and we here in the West employ a goodly number of them.

This, from former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an interview with the German newsweekly Der Spiegel last week: “I don’t want to give a general answer (about the morality of international spying). There’s so much that goes on in intelligence circles. If we were to say no, under no circumstances, that you shouldn’t do that to us, we shouldn’t do that to you, what if a circumstance arises where it is conceivable that it would be in your interest and ours?” 

Furthermore, she said: “The United States could never enter into a No-Spy agreement with any country – not you, not Britain, not Canada.”

Mrs. Clinton made her remarks just as German officials ousted the CIA’s super-secretive station chief from his (or her) digs in Berlin. According to a BBC report last week, “The German government has ordered the expulsion of (the) official. . .in response to two cases of alleged spying by the US. The official is said to have acted as a CIA contact at the US embassy, reports say, in a scandal that has infuriated German politicians. A German intelligence official was arrested last week on suspicion of spying.

An inquiry has also begun into a German defence ministry worker, reports said.”

 In fact, nowadays, it is inconceivable that even friendly nations will resist the temptation to snoop in each other’s sock drawers and medicine cabinets. According to some research – and thanks to the timely revelations of former National Security Administration (NSA) operative Edward Snowden – since the end of the Cold War, spying hasn’t been declining, as one might reasonably expect. It’s been on the rise.   

“Hacking for espionage purposes is sharply increasing, with groups or national governments from Eastern Europe playing a growing role, according to one of the most comprehensive annual studies of computer intrusions,” Reuters reported from San Francisco last month. “Spying intrusions traced back to any country in 2013 were blamed on residents of China and other East Asian nations 49 per cent of the time, but Eastern European countries, especially Russian-speaking nations, were the suspected launching site for 21 per cent of breaches, Verizon Communications Inc. said in its annual Data Breach Investigations Report.”

How worried should we be about our own, personal information? Surveillance experts routinely dismiss public concerns about the electronic sieves through which choice tidbits of individual identities pour. There’s now so much information floating around in cyberspace, they argue, that the odds of any one hapless schlub falling prey to Internet evil-doers are far greater than ever before.

That’s cold comfort, however, when we are also confronted with headlines like this one in Friday’s Globe and Mail: “Ethical concerns raised by workers at spy agency.”

Apparently, workers at Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) – this country’s version of the NSA – are more than a little disturbed by the conduct of some of their colleagues and supervisors. Indeed, reports the Globe, “some have also tried to blow the whistle about ‘improper contractor security screening’, questionable contractor invoicing’, ‘unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information’, and ‘con-compliance with CSEC’s values’.” 

Meanwhile, the institutional hunt for better and greater sources of personal information continues unabated. Now, Statistics Canada wants people to fork over their Social Insurance Numbers as it tries to improve the accuracy and relevance of the data it collects. “The agency is trying to find out if people will reveal a key identifier they’ve been so often warned to protect,” a Canadian Press story observes.

Of course, back in 2011, the federal government’s privacy hawks abolished the mandatory long-form census, claiming it poked its nose in where it didn’t belong. Evidently immune to irony, Ian Macredie, a former StatsCan paper-pusher, told the CP, “We may have a population that, because of the (U.S.) National Security Administration, has a heightened awareness of Big Brother collecting data about us.”

Sure we do. These days, all of our creeps, spooks and spies hide in plain sight.

 

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Warning: Canada’s privacy watchdog also bites

 

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Well, now, that didn’t take long. It seems the honeymoon had only just begun before the newlyweds were hissing and spitting at each other. 

And they all said it was a match made in parliamentary heaven, that it would last, if not forever, at least until the Harper wagon train pulled up its stakes for the last time and headed back home towards the setting sun.

But, in an interview with the Globe and Mail earlier this week, Daniel Therrien, Canada’s new privacy commissioner, took a largely unexpected leap and publicly repudiated the federal government’s interpretation of a recent Supreme Court decision on online privacy in Canada. He even termed parts of the controversial Bill C-13 – which seeks, among other things, immunity for telcos that voluntarily relinquish subscriber information to authorities – as nugatory.

“At a minimum, I would say the immunity clause in Bill C-13 becomes essentially meaningless,” he told the newspaper. “The Supreme Court agrees that this is sensitive information, that it is entitled to constitutional protection. That is a huge clarification. . .So the idea there would be voluntary disclosure from service providers to law enforcement agencies – it is now clear that is not going to pass constitutional muster. I think that is clear.”

In his statement to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights (JUST) on Bill C-13, he was just as categorical: “We are concerned this broad language (in the Bill) could lead to a rise in additional voluntary disclosures and informal requests. This is of particular concern with private-sector companies that are otherwise prohibited from disclosing personal information without consent under PIPEDA or substantially similar legislation. In essence, this could amount to permissive access without court approval and oversight.”

He added: “Canadians expect that their service providers will keep their information confidential and that personal information will not be shared with government authorities without their express consent, clear lawful authority or a warrant.

This does not sound like the guy about whom a panel of privacy experts warned the Prime Minister in an email prior to Mr. Therrien’s appointment earlier this month.

“With great respect and without any intended slight on his abilities, we feel obligated to object to the Government’s recently announced appointee for Privacy Commissioner of Canada,” the letter noted. “As long-standing Assistant Deputy Attorney General for Public Safety, Mr. Therrien lacks the perspective and experience necessary to immediately tackle Canada’s many privacy problems. . .Mr. Therrien’s direct responsibility for and oversight of the programs he will now be called upon to advocate against will exacerbate the already steep learning curve with which he is faced.”

As it turns out, not so much. Also broadly out of step with events was NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair who fumed in question period earlier this month, “Does the prime minister understand why Canadians find it more than a little bit creepy that the prime minister wants to name this guy to protect their privacy.”

In contrast, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau now comes off looking downright prescient. In his letter to the PM in late May, he wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that Daniel Therrien would be an excellent candidate for this position. . .His knowledge and experience, as well his distinguished record of public service will be of great benefit to Canadians.”

In fact, if Mr. Therrien’s initial performance is any indication, Canadians should rest a little more easily. 

Bills C-13 and S-4, which rewrites the regulations covering inter-company dissemination of user information, are time bombs that the Supremes have wisely sought to defuse. What’s more alarming, perhaps, than the proposed legislation is the government’s official response to the Court’s decision.

According to a Globe story, Justice Minister Peter MacKay claims that the ruling actually “backs up the government’s view because ‘voluntary disclosures do not provide legal authority for access to information without a warrant,‘ though the bill (C-13) allows police to get information without a warrant.”

Huh?

It is for reasons such as the foregoing bafflegab that individuals like Mr. Therrien are in great demand by democracies around the world. Their jobs are not to dance with power, but to push against it, especially where new communications technologies vastly expand the opportunities for unauthorized or explicitly illegal surveillance.

Yes, Ottawa officialdom, the honeymoon is indeed over.

 

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Who watches the watchdog?

 

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The degree to which Daniel Therrien will faithfully execute the duties of his office as Canada’s incoming privacy commissioner rests entirely on his appreciation of the meaning of one word.

Call it independence or objectivity or dispassion, but the mandate and mission of this parliamentary watchdog are both clear and specific. 

They go like this, straight from the official record: “The mandate of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) is overseeing compliance with both the Privacy Act, which covers the personal information-handling practices of federal government departments and agencies, and the Personal Information Protection and Electronics Documents Act (PIPEDA), Canada’s private sector privacy law. The mission. . .is to protect and promote the privacy rights of individuals.” 

In this, “the Commissioner works independently from any other part of the government to investigate complaints from individuals with respect to the federal public sector and Sutherland private sector.” 

So, then, what are Canadians to make of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s choice to succeed Interim Commissioner Chantal Bernier? By all appearances, the two could not possess more divergent pedigrees. 

Like her predecessor, Jennifer Stoddart, Ms. Bernier comes from the traditional, bible-thumping school of public watchdoggery, preaching the gospel of accountability in all things government-related, come what may. 

In contrast, Mr. Therrien’s resume reads like that of a consummate insider, a man who appears to be more comfortable with going along to get along. His official bio, posted to the Prime Minister of Canada’s website, is unapologetic, even cheerful:

“In his current role, among other notable achievements, Mr. Therrien co-led the negotiating team responsible for the adoption of privacy principles governing the sharing of information between Canada and the U.S. under the Beyond the Border Accord, an umbrella agreement to enhance trade and security which includes 33 specific arrangements. These principles provide for the implementation, harmonization and augmentation of safeguards found in Canadian and U.S. Privacy legislation.”

To his supporters (among them, somewhat incongruously, is Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau), Mr. Therrien is the model of perspicacity, experience and knowledge – exactly what the office he will soon fill needs. To his detractors, he’s a catastrophe waiting to happen.

In a letter to Mr. Harper, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair asserted, among other things, that Mr. Therrien “has nether the neutrality nor the necessary detachment to hold this position.” 

Michael Geist, an electronic security consultant, also expressed concerns. “Surely, the government is sending a bit of a signal that in an environment when there were other privacy commissioners and people with deep backgrounds on the privacy side, that they’ve chosen to focus on someone whose most recent emphasis has been on safety and security,” he told the Toronto Star last week. 

In a different time, none of this would have captured the public’s imagination quite so compellingly. After all, the privacy office, itself, wields more moral than legal persuasion over the affairs of public servants. It reports to Parliament, which is, for the moment, numerically weighted in favour of the sitting government. 

Still, the digital age – the age of whistle-blowers like Edward Snowdon and Julian Assange – has produced its very own brand of fear and loathing, where big brothers lurk around every street corner just under the closed circuit TV monitors that record you picking your nose as you jaywalk to work. 

Now, along with all the other bad news to digest, comes a front-page report in the New York Times this week that alleges the National Security Agency in the United States is “harvesting huge numbers of images of people from communications that it intercepts through its global surveillance operations for use in sophisticated facial recognition programs, according to top-secret documents.”

In this environment, Mr. Therrien’s nomination deserves the scrutiny it’s getting.

He may well be the dutiful, responsible, careful thinker his backers describe. He may be better-equipped to exercise his duties than any parliamentary watchdog, before or since. He may be a mandarin who manages to cross over from public servant to ombudsman, seamlessly. 

But will he be independent, the essence of his task? 

Time – that commodity this democracy is running down every day – will tell.

 

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Lest we forget our rights in the Internet age

 

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My human nature abhors a snoop, unless he would be me. I am as compelled to conceal most details of my admittedly humdrum life as I am to blow the lid off someone else’s potentially dangerous cache of secrets. 

This is why, when it comes to privacy in the age of the Internet, I do not worry overmuch about irreconcilable urges. Everyone, it seems, has them.

Earlier this month, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that a Spanish guy does, indeed, possess the “right to be forgotten” in cyberspace, just as he had argued, setting a precedent that could spell profound implications for privacy advocates and free-speech supporters, alike. 

According to an online news item in the Guardian, “In what could be a landmark case for internet privacy, a European court has ruled that Google must amend some of its search results. . .The test case. . .was brought by a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González, after he failed to secure the deletion of an auction notice of his repossessed home dating from 1998 on the website of a mass circulation newspaper in Catalonia. . .

(In) the advisory judgement. . .individuals have a right to control their private data, especially if they are not public figures.”

The Guardian piece goes on to report that “More and more individuals are claiming they have a ‘right to be forgotten’, particularly when the internet pulls up personal information which may appear one-sided or unfair.”

For its part, Google characterized the ruling as “disappointing” and indicated it would take its time “analysing the implications”.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was simply gobsmacked. 

“(This is) one of the most wide-sweeping internet censorship rulings that I’ve ever seen,” he told BBC Radio 5 last week. “If you really dig into it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’re asking Google. . .you can complain about something and just say it’s irrelevant, and Google has to make some kind of a determination about that. That’s a very hard and difficult thing for Google to do – particularly if it’s at risk of being held legally liable if it gets it wrong in some way.”

Moreover, he said, “Normally we would think whoever is publishing the information, they have the primary responsibility – Google just helps us to find the things that are online. . .I would expect that Google is going to resist these claims quite vigorously. I think they would be foolish not to because if they have to start coping with everybody who whines about a picture they posted last week, it’s going to be very difficult for Google.”

Still, if some authorities think it’s perfectly okay to require search engines like Google to scrub the past clean on demand, others seem determined to obtain access to the unfiltered mausoleums of information that represent the virtual lives of nearly three billion IT-savvy earthlings. 

The Government of Canada, for one, is doing its level best to shine daylight on two bills (C-13 and C-31) that would expand the snooping powers of police. According to a report in the Globe and Mail last week, these controversial pieces of legislation will “give police and other law-enforcement officials new powers to request and monitor the private data of Canadians, despite objections from privacy watchdogs.”

Where is, these watchdogs wonder, our ‘“right to be forgotten”?

In a letter, earlier this month, to Conservative MP Mike Wallace, chair of the Commons justice committee, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian stated, “The time for dressing up overreaching surveillance powers in the sheep-like clothing of sanctimony about the serious harms caused by child pornography and cyberbullying is long past.”

In her own statement last week, British Columbia’s privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, advised the feds to “separate the provisions addressing cyberbullying from those that extend law enforcement powers,” arguing that “any proposed increase to those powers must be critically examined and vigorously debated.” 

She added: “It is up to government and law enforcement agencies to make the case to Canadians as to why increased police powers are necessary.”

Canada’s various privacy commissioners and the likes of Jimmy Wales may argue interminably about which is more dangerous to a healthy democracy: Too much of an individual’s personal information concentrated hands of a powerful few; or not enough accurate information about an individual’s actions available to the great, unwashed masses.

The good news is, perhaps only, that the debate is far from settled. 

 

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