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.

Civic duty and the values of an informed society

How the government’s action regarding the long-overdue FIPPA reform reflects our collective attitudes towards political issues

“International justice and privacy” by EFF-Graphics is licensed under CC BY 3.0 US

By Carlo Javier

We have an interesting relationship with our rights – especially those dealing with our freedom to access information and privacy. On one hand, conversations around such issues have certainly become more welcome in the general Canadian discourse, and on the other, conversations are ultimately just that – conversations.

I bring this to attention after quite an inspiring event took place at this year’s Right to Know Week. With the signed support of several important figures from Canada’s host of esteemed advocacy groups, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (BC FIPA) called on Premier John Horgan and Minister of Citizens’ Services Jinny Sims to immediately act on the long-overdue reforms for the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act (FIPPA).

Said reforms reflect recommendations made by a review committee commissioned by the Legislative Assembly in 2016, and focus on four primary pillars:

  • To do away with an ‘oral government’ and implement a ‘duty to document’ under FIPPA’s jurisdiction, which would mandate government officials to maintain accurate and detailed records of their work;
  • To refine existing provisions – especially in sections 12 and 13 – and alleviate exploitation of loopholes;
  • To bring all subsidiaries of educational and other public bodies within the scope of the FIPPA;
  • To create real repercussions for government officials who impede freedom of information rights processes.

Notably, BC FIPA asked that the law reform be implemented before the next provincial elections (2021) and that the government commit to a tangible timetable.

In their official response, Minister Sims wrote that the government is “committed to openness and transparency” and that dramatic improvements on a legislation that dictates how the government handles and shares records cannot be done with haste. Furthermore, the response included that “updating policies, regulation and legislation” are necessary tasks prior to any actual reforms. While there is no mention of the requested timetable, Minister Sims did note that feedback from their consultations with both internal and external stakeholders should arrive in the “coming months.”

The response may seem like a strategic communications reply, but it is progress nonetheless.

Among the most resonant parts of BC FIPA’s letter to Premier Horgan and Minister Sims was a critique on how government bodies tend to react to inquiries that challenge their stance on transparency, accountability, and the right to know. For the most part, responses will be rich with endearing and supportive messages of hope and promise, but empty of meaningful and substantive action – the things that lead to actual legislative changes.

One of the signatories of the letter is Toby Mendel, Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy. Toby reiterates a critical view of the government’s commitment to FIPPA reform, noting that although politicians may be keen on discussing their priorities, “concrete promises to take action” don’t exactly come as often.

“Unfortunately, Minister Sim’s letter falls precisely into this talk without walk category,” he says. “She speaks eloquently about the importance of transparency and notes that her government is ‘examining’ practically every aspect of this issue, but significantly fails to actually promise anything. We do not need another examination.”

In fairness to the government, the delay could very well be attributed to the possibility of including privacy matters and the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) to any impending reform. Such reasons would certainly be understandable considering the gravity of the act, but if the delay is ultimately just a means to stall, then it is only right for us to expect and demand for better.

According to Toby, FIPPA has been researched exhaustively and its shortcomings are all abundantly clear. BC’s FIPPA is especially lacking, scoring just 97 out of 150 in its Right to Information (RTI) Rating – putting it 14 points behind Canada’s top scoring jurisdiction in Newfoundland and 43 other countries around the globe.

By no means do I intend to be scathingly critical of government action or inaction, but what I can be critical of is how such attitudes – which some might even describe as bordering on apathetic – are eerily reflective of our collective mentality as citizens.

We deeply value our ability to protect our digital privacy and our right to access information. So much so that conversations within these issues are no longer happening exclusively among privacy and FOI advocates, but the general public, too. Just this year alone, we saw considerable uproar after Facebook came under fire for security breaches and data harvesting. The same reaction was directed to Air Canada and Statistics Canada after their own respective security and privacy practices became subject to controversy.

Maybe BC FIPA’s critique on government can be applied to society as well, speaking on transparency, accountability, and the right to know is one thing, but meaningful action is another.

It is baffling how these issues have so provocatively permeated the public discourse, yet meaningful progress have been so stagnant. The issue could be with how we see and accept the realities of our rights. Ideas that feel so personal and so close to home are infinitely more accessible than any acts and legislation full of legalese and political jargon. I have only been with BC FIPA for a short period, but I have seen the depth and the magnitude of our rights to protect our privacy and our rights to access information.

The two intrinsically linked ideas may seem inherently about the digital world, but it is a tremendous understatement to say that they are much more than that. FOI and privacy are our couriers to a true democracy. They are among the institutions that keep us well-informed and equipped to participate in the political environment. Nothing captures this notion better than the revelation that data collected through Facebook was used to manipulate voter choices in the 2016 US Presidential Elections and the Brexit campaign – two incidents that feel nothing short of violation of democratic rights.

BC FIPA’s letter to Premier Horgan and Minister Sims ends with the suggestion that quickly acting on the FIPPA reform will give the government an opportunity to exhibit “true leadership.” And if the government were to provide these reforms with the promptness and effort it deserves, maybe that approach will reflect itself in us too, as citizens, and as members of an informed society.

Actions speak louder than words and you don’t have to wait for legislative reform to take action, click here to exercise your democracy now.

Carlo Javier is the new Community Awareness and Outreach Coordinator at BC FIPA. He is a graduate of Capilano University’s School of Communications and is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Capilano Courier. 

FIPA undertakes major new project on automotive telematics and privacy

Thanks to funding from the federal Privacy Commissioner’s Contributions Program, FIPA is launching a year-long study to examine the effect of electronic monitoring systems in our vehicles, on our privacy rights and consumer choice.

Our vehicles are no longer simple mechanical devices which provide us with transportation, but electronic platforms capable of remarkable feats. This means that they collect and process large amounts of information, much of which is personal information and some of it highly sensitive.

For decades, vehicle manufacturers have been using ever-increasing amounts of electronic technology to run the systems that provide more powerful, yet economical powerplants, not to mention electronic amusements and diversions. Now the growing use of telematics by vehicle manufacturers and insurers raises significant privacy concerns, including:

  • To what extent will automobile owners and drivers have choice over how and when their vehicles are being tracked?
  • What happens when use of telematics becomes industry norm? Will those who opt out for privacy reasons have to pay a premium to maintain their privacy? Or will that option simply disappear?
  • Will consumers be able to make truly informed decisions if the choice is between concrete benefits and real but elusive risks?
  • Are there viable alternatives to what the automobile and insurance industries are developing that can provide the benefits consumers seek while not sacrificing their rights?

The lead researcher for the study will be Philippa Lawson, a well-known lawyer with considerable experience in both privacy and consumer law. The project is conducted in collaboration with Prof Andrew Clement and the New Transparency: Surveillance and Social Sorting project at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner announced the funding of our project earlier today in Ottawa.