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Those aged 18 to 34 were more likely to use features such as passwords and settings to protect their privacy than older Canadians. (Reuters)

Less than half of Canadian cellphone and tablet users put password locks on the devices or adjust settings to limit the sharing of personal information stored on the devices, a poll commissioned by Canada's privacy commissioner has found.

"Canadians are recognizing that their personal information is not safe in this new digital environment, unless they take concrete measures to protect it," Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said in a news release Thursday with the results of the poll.

"Unfortunately, however, too few are taking even the most basic precautions."

The telephone survey of 2000 adults, conducted between Feb. 23 and March 6 by Harris/Decima, found that among the 74 per cent that owned a mobile device, just 39 per cent used password locks and 40 per cent adjusted settings to protect their personal information. Women (35 per cent) were less likely to use a password lock than men (42 per cent).

The survey is considered accurate within plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Those who said they stored personal information or had apps on their device were more likely to take precautions to protect their privacy.

The survey also found that:

  • One third of Canadians use public Wi-Fi at places such as coffee shops and airports where online communications are not always protected by encryption.
  • One in five users of social networking sites do not adjust privacy settings to control who can see photos and information about them online.

Those aged 18 to 34 were more likely to use features such as passwords and settings to protect their privacy than older Canadians.

"This was a gratifying finding," Stoddart said in a statement.

 "Young people are sometimes stereotyped as digital exhibitionists who are quite uninhibited in posting comments and personal images. And yet, this new data shows that they not only care about privacy, they are actually leaders in protecting it."

However, younger people were least likely to say their knowledge of privacy rights was very good or express confidence in their ability to protect it.

The survey was conducted more than a month before a series of high profile data breaches, including one in April that affected more than 100 million users of Sony services such as the PlayStation Network. At that time, respondents were less concerned than they were in 2009 about hacking technologies and identity theft.

Privacy worries

Nevertheless, most respondents did express increasing worries about how their personal information is being protected in the Internet Age:

  • When asked if there were technologies they were particularly concerned about with respect to privacy issues, 40 per cent said the internet, 15 per cent said social networking sites and 11 per cent said cellphone or communications technology. For a similar survey two years earlier, just 26 per cent were concerned about the internet, two per cent about social networking sites and three per cent about cellphone or communications technology.
  • 85 per cent of public Wi-Fi users were concerned about the risk it posed to their privacy.
  • 45 per cent of social networking site users also expressed concern about the risk to their privacy.
  • 61 per cent felt their personal information is more weakly protected than 10 years ago.
  • Only 14 per cent felt businesses are taking their obligations to protect privacy seriously and 22 per cent thought governments are doing so.

Perhaps reflecting the latter perception, 82 per cent opposed giving police and intelligence agencies the power to access email records and other internet usage data without a warrant from the courts.

Legislation that would give police and intelligence agencies such powers has been proposed a number of times by the government and are expected to be re-introduced as part of omnibus crime bill that the Conservatives plan to table this fall.

The legislation has been opposed by a number of Opposition MPs, a group of internet and privacy law experts and the internet freedom advocacy group Open Media, which launched the "Stop Spying" petition  against it June.

Eighty-five per cent of survey respondents said they were somewhat or very concerned about personal information provided to airport and border crossing agents being shared with foreign authorities.

Tougher laws wanted

Meanwhile, a vast majority believe Canada should toughen up laws protecting personal information:

  • 97 per cent of respondents want companies who break privacy laws to be legally required to implement privacy protections. At the moment, the Privacy Commissioner can make recommendations, but must turn to the courts for enforcement if the company refuses to comply.
  • 95 per cent think companies who break privacy laws should be named, 91 per cent think they should be fined, and 84 per cent think they should be taken to court.
  • 83 per cent think internet companies should ask their customers for permission before tracking online behaviour and internet usage.