FUTURE TECH Privacy Please!

By Nowak, Peter | Winnipeg Free Press, June 23, 2012 | Go to article overview

FUTURE TECH Privacy Please!


Nowak, Peter, Winnipeg Free Press


A century ago, Antarctic explorers kept the sex lives of penguins secret. Today, in the digital age, we are far less circumspect about our habits, even as we weigh the value and nature of privacy

In an age in which people are sharing the tiniest details of their lives on Facebook and Twitter -- from what they had for lunch to whom they've had sex with -- it's hard to believe anyone still values privacy.

But they do -- perhaps more than ever, according to some of the country's leading privacy experts.

"We have a culture of revelation, or revealing things about ourselves to other people, that really hasn't been available to us before," says Ian Kerr, the Canada research chair in ethics, law and technology at the University of Ottawa. "A lot of people mistakenly take that point and say, 'Oh, people no longer care about privacy, they're letting it all hang out on Facebook.' That's not really what's going on." While it's easy to think the inexorable march into digital connectedness through technology means people are becoming less protective of their personal information, Kerr says it's actually more a case of privacy evolving to match changing social norms. We are, in effect, becoming more and less private.

Kerr recalls a study that he took part in with a number of provincial privacy commissioners in 2007. In it, students were asked whether they knew that text chat services such as BlackBerry and MSN Messenger owned their communications, and if so, why they continued to use them.

One respondent said he was indeed aware but he didn't care, because texting his friends was more private than making a phone call, which could be overheard by his parents. He said he would rather risk dealing with a faceless corporation down the road than with the immediate ramifications of what his parents might hear.

"It was a real eye-opener because it told the commissioners that there wasn't a lack of privacy value, it's that (younger people) place their salience in a different location than other people would," Kerr says."It's therefore a bit harder to understand where they're coming from."

In a recent poll taken by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, two-thirds of respondents said protecting their personal information will be one of the most important issues over the next few years. The recent uproar by Canadians against lawful-access legislation that would have given police new powers for collecting personal information, which was ultimately dropped, lends credibility to the poll numbers.

"There is a privacy awareness and a concern about it," says Jennifer Stoddart, the privacy commissioner. "From that point of view, concern about privacy and privacy values are alive and well." The move toward more voluntary information-sharing actually has little to do with technology, since privacy values adjust themselves to relative social norms, she says. …

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