Online tracking under scrutiny

For the London Free Press - February 8, 2010 Read this on Canoe

Canadians are invited to submit comments

Canada's Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, recently announced a new consultation with the Canadian public on privacy issues related to the online tracking, profiling and targeting of consumers by marketers and other businesses.

Canadians are invited to submit comments and participate in panel discussions. Details are on the Privacy Commissioner's website at http://www.priv.gc.ca/.

The commissioner says this consultation will "provide a forum for the exploration of the privacy implications related to this modern industry practice, and the protections that Canadians expect. Our goal, therefore, is to shine a spotlight on this evolving technological trend."

Online consumer tracking takes several different forms. The most basic level of tracking places cookies on one's computer to collect data about browsing habits. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in mobile devices can supply consumer data. Deep packet inspection of Internet traffic is another way to gather data.

Of course, we advertise a vast amount of personal information about ourselves when we join social networking sites. Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn are prime examples.

What many may not realize is that personal data available about anyone can be gathered from various sources and pieced together to create comprehensive personal profiles which are available for a price. The buyer may use the information to help them market their products to specific consumer groups. It can be a valuable commodity.

It is unlikely that anyone will put a complete stop to online consumer tracking. Some of it offers real benefits to consumers. The key is to attain a balance where privacy is respected without getting in the way of the advantages the technology provides.

Transparency and choice are important components. We should be made aware of what is being collected and why, and be able to choose whether or not the benefits are worth the disclosure.

This consultation is an opportunity for the public to become engaged in a topic that affects us all. Written submissions are being accepted until March 15.

They are also looking for people to take part in formal discussion panels in Toronto in April, and in Montreal in May.

This consultation aims to give the commissioner's office a "comprehensive view of the privacy risks associated with the online tracking, profiling and targeting of consumers, and contribute to the development of new public education and outreach materials," it says.

"It will also help shape the office's input into the next parliamentary review of the private-sector Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act."

A second consultation will be held later focused on cloud computing, or using software from a remote location rather than having it on your own computer. It, too, is a technology that has compelling advant-ages, but can carry privacy risks and uncertainties.