Canadians need to take more responsibility for internet privacy in an age where increasing openness is being exploited by online fraudsters, according to Canada's privacy commissioner.
"Many young people are choosing to open their lives in ways their parents would have thought impossible and their grandparents unthinkable," Jennifer Stoddart notes in her annual report to Parliament, which was tabled Tuesday.
"Their lives play out on a public stage of their own design as they strive for visibility, connectedness and knowledge," she wrote.
The commissioner referred to several studies that examined how young people interact with the web.
Stoddard's report quoted noted sociologist and researcher Danah Boyd, who has observed that "most teens are engaging with social media without any deep understanding of the underlying dynamics or structure."
The report also referenced researcher Leslie Regan Shade, of Montreal's Concordia University, who has noted that when youth express concern about their personal information and privacy, it is within the context of their relationships: "They want to control their image, and how they appear to their peers and others," Stoddard wrote.
In one 2008 case, an individual used the name, personal information and photo of a man with two daughters to create a phoney account on a social networking site.
The person then pretended to be the father and duped the girls into becoming his 'friends,' thus gaining access to their personal information.
He then began sending the daughters threatening and obscene postings and emails.
The victims quickly recognized they'd been tricked, and got the social networking site to delete the offending account.
In another 2008 case, the commission investigated whether the popular social networking site Facebook violated privacy laws by not informing members as to how their personal information would be disclosed to third parties for advertising purposes.
Facebook agreed to make changes that would improve client control over their information and enable them to make more informed choices about their privacy.
Stoddart's report looks at 2008 privacy complaint investigations; technology and privacy issues; and the commissioner's efforts to encourage the development of international privacy standards.
She warned that young people may be too open with their personal information online.
"Such openness can lead to greater creativity, literacy, networking and social engagement. But putting so much of their personal information out into the open can also … leave an enduring trail of embarrassing moments that could haunt them in future," the commissioner says in her report.
More and more, there are reports of people being fired and missing out on job interviews and academic opportunities because of remarks or postings they have made online in the past.
In some cases, people have mistakenly thought email conversations and wall postings were actually private, when they were in fact public, and have had to deal with the fallout.
There is also a risk that unguarded personal information could be exploited by identity thieves, said Stoddard.
The Privacy Commissioner's Office has made online youth privacy a key priority of late. Contests have been created to reach young people and the office has created a youth privacy website, youthprivacy.ca.
In 2008, the privacy commissioner investigated 422 new complaints. In 2007, there was 350 complaints, fewer than half the 723 received in 2004.