Global flow of data saps privacy rules

For the London Free Press - March 15, 2010 Read this on Canoe

Canada's privacy commissioner calls for modernized laws to address evolution of cyberspace

Last month, Canada's privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, gave an address titled "The Future of Privacy Regulation" at the 11th annual Privacy and Security Conference in Victoria.

Describing herself as the "village elder" in the privacy community, her speech detailed many of the changes that have occurred in cyberspace over the last decade.

The advent of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Google Street View, and iPods all occurred during the last seven years of her tenure.

She also identified "real-time globalization" and "instantaneous worldwide flow of data" as changing the terrain of privacy regulation.

These developments have resulted in significant challenges for administering th e regulations that protect the privacy of Canadians' personal information.

"In light of these colossal changes over the past decade alone, it would be foolish to try to predict what the next decade will hold," she said.

"But what we can say for certain is that the regulatory framework we have in place now for the protection of privacy and personal information is being sorely tested.

"We have bent and stretched it in many different ways," she added. "And if we don't want it to snap, we need to figure out how to fortify it for the decade ahead."

Stoddart recognized that the Privacy Act, which governs the federal public sector, and the Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act, which governs the private sector, need to be modernized so we are properly equipped to meet future changes.

Stoddart noted the technology we now use has created a previously unheard-of market for businesses following consumer behaviour. This creates difficulties for regulators in terms of what information the average consumer knowingly consents to share.

The challenge of new technology is compounded by the increasingly global scope of data flows across borderless virtual communities. When our personal information ends up in countries lacking strong privacy regulation, Canadians may not have the privacy rights they enjoy in Canada.

Despite the challenges, Stoddart said Canada's business community works closely with privacy regulators to ensure they comply with the rules.

Canada is also seeking to work more closely with other countries to create common rules and standards and to ensure uniform enforcement.

Efforts underway include the Spanish Initiative, a draft international privacy standard put forward by an international working group and endorsed in Madrid, which Stoddart calls a "valuable first step towards a harmonized approach to data protection."

The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) group as been working to protect information flowing into Asian countries. APEC is developing cross-border privacy rules to govern international information flow and facilitate co-operation between national authorities.

While acknowledging that "a single, enforceable global standard for privacy won't materialize overnight -- if ever," Stoddart stressed that Canada must continue to actively pursue standardized regulations to protect Canadians' privacy rights.