Jim Bronskill, Canadian Press
If only Canadians would read the article, and take it seriously! /Sandra
The federal privacy watchdog is warning Canadians about the growing threat of surveillance capitalism — the use of personal information by large corporations.
In his annual report tabled Thursday in Parliament, privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said state surveillance — a major concern after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — has been reined in somewhat in recent years.
Meanwhile, personal data has emerged as a highly valuable asset and no one has leveraged it better than the tech giants behind web searches and social media accounts, he said.
“Today, the privacy conversation is dominated by the growing power of tech giants like Facebook and Google, which seem to know more about us than we know about ourselves,” the report said. “Terms like surveillance capitalism and the surveillance economy have become part of the dialogue.”
The risks of surveillance capitalism were on full display in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, now the subject of proceedings in Federal Court because his office did not have the power to order Facebook to comply with its recommendations, Therrien said.
In addition, the law did not allow the commissioner to levy financial penalties to dissuade this kind of corporate behaviour.
Therrien, in his last year as privacy commissioner, is encouraging the federal government to make several improvements to planned legislation on private-sector data-handling practices when it is reintroduced in coming weeks.
Artificial intelligence, the newest frontier of surveillance capitalism, has immense promise in addressing some of today’s most pressing issues, but must be implemented in ways that respect privacy, equality and other human rights, Therrien cautioned.
“Our office’s investigation of Clearview AI’s use of facial recognition technology was an example of where commercial AI deployment fell significantly short of privacy laws.”
The commissioner found Clearview AI violated the private-sector privacy law by creating a databank of billions of images scraped from the internet without consent to fuel its commercial facial recognition software.
Digital technologies like AI, which rely on the collection and analysis of personal data, are at the heart of the fourth industrial revolution and are key to socio-economic development, the report said. “However, they pose major risks to rights and values.”
To draw value from data, the law should accommodate new, unforeseen, but responsible uses of information for the public good, the report added. But the additional flexibility should come within a rights-based framework, given frequent violations of human rights.
Therrien highlighted another trend – the increase in public-private partnerships and the use of corporate expertise to assist state organizations, for instance the RCMP’s association with Clearview AI.
Privacy issues arising from public-private partnerships were also evident in a number of government-led pandemic initiatives involving digital technologies in the last year, the report added. “These issues underscored the need for more consistency across the public and private sector laws.”
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THE PRIVACY COMMISSIONER’S NEWS RELEASE HAS SOME LINKS
To build a more resilient economy, Privacy Commissioner calls on government to make privacy law reform a priority
Last decade has shown benefits and real threats of technology. Respect for values and rights are the foundation for responsible innovation.
GATINEAU, QC, December 9, 2021 – Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien is calling on the government to use its renewed mandate to bring Canada into the modern era by adopting rights-based privacy laws that will reflect Canadian values and support responsible innovation. This would be consistent with the government’s intention in the last Speech from the Throne to grow a more resilient economy that works for everyone.
The final annual report of the Commissioner’s mandate was tabled in Parliament today. The report takes stock of the growing challenges for privacy and the best way forward.
The Commissioner says many key files during his mandate – the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal and its impact on democracy, successive data breaches, growing use of facial recognition technology and risks of surveillance, ineffective consent policies and online reputation – identified key threats to privacy and other human rights, and consequently pointed to solutions.
“There is no doubt that the modern economy will increasingly depend on the value of data. The new Parliament must legislate to enable responsible innovation, but this should be done within a rights-based framework that recognizes the fundamental right to privacy. As a society, we must project our values into laws,” Commissioner Therrien says.
“I am encouraged by recent comments made by the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry about reintroducing an amended bill in the New Year.”
The Commissioner urges the government to act as recommended in a recent declaration of G7 Digital and Technology Ministers, who called for a “sustainable, inclusive and human-centric” approach to a post-pandemic prosperity “guided by our shared democratic values of open and competitive markets, strong safeguards including for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and international cooperation…”
In 2020, the government introduced a bill to update Canada’s federal private sector privacy law. It died on the order paper with the election call this summer. The Commissioner’s submission on the bill included some 60 recommendations aimed at ensuring it will do as intended and effectively protect the privacy rights of Canadians.
The government has also indicated its plans to update the federal law setting out privacy obligations in the public sector. It published a paper on possible reforms and completed a public consultation that will inform future legislation.
In recent letters to the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers and party leaders, Commissioner Therrien reiterated his commitment to support legislative reform that promotes the protection of rights as well as responsible innovation and economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic.
He noted that Canada’s privacy regime had already fallen behind the laws of many of its global trading partners, and now it is falling behind domestically, as the provinces step in to fill gaps.
Ontario and Quebec have already put forward proposals towards responsible digital innovation within a legal framework that recognizes privacy as a fundamental human right. Quebec recently passed Bill 64 and Ontario is in the midst of serious consultations about its own law.
“While these initiatives are excellent, they do not absolve the federal government from the responsibility to ensure all Canadians are protected in that manner,” the Commissioner says.
“Federal legislation that would achieve this goal would reassure citizens that they would receive similar protections throughout the country. It would also benefit commercial organizations by setting interoperable norms, reducing compliance costs and increasing competitiveness.”
The Commissioner has also called for common principles to be reflected in federal privacy laws for the public and private sectors. As we’ve seen with several pandemic-related initiatives and the RCMP’s use of Clearview’s facial recognition technology, this is particularly important given the growing reliance on public-private partnerships.
The Commissioner’s 2020-21 annual report also addresses other work under both federal laws. This includes statistical data on complaints and breaches, information about our business and government advisory work, as well as summaries of investigations.
The report discusses the federal government’s engagement with the OPC on a range of files, including numerous initiatives related to COVID-19, border controls and programs that provide benefits during the pandemic.