Democratic implications of privacy issues take centre stage at ‘Privacy in Peril’

By Carlo Javier

It was fitting to end Data Privacy Day on Jan. 28 with a talk called Privacy in Peril.

Organized by the Vancouver Public Library and the SFU Library, the event saw Mike Larsen of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) and Micheal Vonn of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) cast a light on modern issues surrounding data, surveillance, and privacy.

Larsen opened the discussions with a statement that might best capture the complicated nature of privacy amidst our increasingly digital and interconnected world: “Privacy is a collective good. Thinking about the perils that privacy faces right now requires us to think about privacy as a democratic good.” The principle is especially critical of the framework often used to analyze privacy – one that isolates issues as strictly individual-based cases (think consent forms, website cookie policy notifications). Larsen’s suggestion is to look at privacy with a holistic perspective and to see how privacy rights have implications not only to an individual, but to many other agents that may either be directly or indirectly involved.

He then put forward two concepts he deemed to be main pillars of the current state of privacy: Surveillance Capitalism as discussed in Shoshana Zuboff’s new book and Bernard E. Harcourt’s study on the Expository Society.


“Privacy is a collective good. Thinking about the perils that privacy faces right now requires us to think about privacy as a democratic good.”

– Mike Larsen

The two ideas were both entirely unsurprising, yet undeniably unsettling. While the monetization of data has become fairly well-known (and seemingly accepted), Larsen disputed the belief that the collection of our digital footprint is dedicated solely to economic means like marketing and advertising. I heard noticeable gasps from around the audience when he delved into the other side of surveillance, the one we don’t talk about enough: prediction of behaviour, political sentiment, and voting practices – and information such as these can open the possibility for the steering and manipulation of the public.

Micheal Vonn (left) of the BCCLA and Mike Larsen (right) of BC FIPA discusses the complicated state of privacy amidst an increasingly digital and interconnected society.

Although the discussion on the Expository Society veered towards a more academic vernacular, the subject in its most basic nutshell did hit close to home. It is essentially a critique on how the digital age and the dawn of social media have changed our habits, how we have become more incentivized and inclined to share personal information in public spaces, which in turn builds copious amounts of vulnerable data.

The concern about the safety of our data was a sentiment that Vonn echoed in her discussion, stating that we create more data than most places, but unfortunately, “we can’t really protect it.” Vonn also delved into sovereignty and transparency, citing the lack of ability to hold government bodies accountable, relative to the amount of access government has to our personal information. As for tips and solutions, Vonn proposed a tactic she admittedly described as unpopular – go analog. A self-confessed Luddite, Vonn spoke of the security measures created by simply leaving devices like laptops (and yes, even phones) at home when travelling or crossing the US-Canada border.

Although we only celebrate Data Privacy Day once a year, the discussion it generates allow for issues surrounding data, surveillance, and privacy to permeate our general discourse. And while the meaningful action that we seek can come so few and far between, these discussions do represent a small victory. At the end of the day, we want as many people talking and caring about these issues. After all, privacy is a collective good.

Eager to get involved in the fight for our rights? Click here to join the cause.

Carlo Javier is the community awareness and outreach coordinator at BC FIPA. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies from Capilano University.

Access in the Academy: Bringing FOI and ATI to Academic Research

AccessAcademy_CoverAccess in the Academy, developed by the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association and Mike Larsen of Kwantlen Polytechnic University (Instructor, Dept. of Criminology), and generously funded by the Law Foundation of British Columbia, is a brand new educational resource that provides a unique and practical look at how researchers, students, and others in the higher education can make the most of FOI and ATI practices.

Although they shed valuable light on just how public records are produced, managed, and distributed (or withheld), FOI and ATI remain a rarity in the university classroom. This resource hopes to change that. By outlining the general contours of our federal and provincial access regimes and by providing strategies for how to incorporate both into your research designs, Access in the Academy makes a much-needed and highly accessible contribution to the Canadian legal research landscape.

Written by one of Canada’s leading FOI and ATI researchers, produced by Canada’s only non-profit organization solely dedicated to protecting and advancing the information rights of citizens, and extensively reviewed by a diverse team of information experts, librarians, advocates, educators, and students, Access in the Academy is a valuable addition to any research syllabus.

For more than twenty years, the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association has relied on the support of our community to provide resources, educational programming, and one-on-one advice. By making a contribution to the Association in exchange for this resource, you’re helping us provide another two decades of service to Canadians and supporting more publications like this in the future. There is no minimum donation amount. Every bit helps.

Click here to make a donation. We hope you consider supporting the Association, but more importantly, we hope you find Access in the Academy a valuable and practical addition to your research activities!

Download the resource.

About the Author: Mike Larsen is a Professor of Criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He is also Co-Managing Editor of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (jpp.org), a prisoner-authored and peer-reveiwed journal dedicated to experiential narratives and analysis related to spaces and practices of incarceration. His current research draws on a case study analysis of the Canadian security certificate regime to explore issues at the intersection of national security politics and contestations around access to information and secrecy. Mike has recently compiled an edited volume (with Kevil Walby) called Brokering Access: Politics, Power and Freedom of Information in Canada (UBC Press, 2012). Other forthcoming works discuss systemic access to information requests as a research technique for critical social science and questions of accountability and transparency related to collaborative security practices.

Let us know what you think: If you have comments, questions, or concerns about Access in the Academy, please send them to FIPA at fipa@vcn.bc.ca.

FIPA Bulletin – June 2013

In this issue:

  • BC Election: It’s time to double down on info rights
  • BC Election Act causes confusion, chills free speech — again
  • Major data security issues bedevil the Federal Government
  • A National ID Card by Stealth?
  • Fighting for a fair deal: FIPA continues to oppose Trans-Pacific Partnership
  • FIPA is hiring! Join the team
  • Access in the Academy: FIPA to launch new ATI/FOI resource for researchers

Download the bulletin (pdf).

FIPA Bulletin – October 2012

In this issue:

  • 2012 BC Informatiion Summit tackles “Government 2.0”
  • Just Rewards: Darrell Evans awarded Grace-Pépin Access to Information Award
  • OIPC to investigate government’s failure to post FOI requests after FIPA complaint
  • BC election law still has constitutional problems despite BC Court of Appeal ruling
  • Lock Down: wall of secrecy around Ministry of Health privacy breach slams door shut on freedom of information.
  • Provincial FOI performance plummets over last decade
  • Troubled integrated case management system “stable and secure” – Minister
  • FIPA + Huffington Post BC
  • FIPA at Media Democracy Days

Download the bulletin.