Politics

Google Canada rejects allegations it's mismanaging user data

The former head of Research in Motion warned government officials today of the risks of failing to regulate tech giants, while Google Canada's head of public policy rejected allegations the company is failing to transparently and securely manage data.

Former RIM CEO urges government to regulate tech giants without compromising innovation

Colin McKay of Google Canada testifies at a Commons ethics committee in Ottawa on Thursday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The former head of Research in Motion warned government officials today of the risks of failing to regulate tech giants, while Google Canada's head of public policy rejected allegations the company is failing to transparently and securely manage data.

"It's a complex issue because this is the biggest force in the history of capitalism, where six companies come from nowhere to be the most valuable companies in the world in a very short period of time," Jim Balsillie, chair of the Council of Canadian Innovators and former RIM co-CEO, told the House of Commons ethics committee investigating the Facebook data scandal.

"This is a big file and we need to urgently address it in a horizontal way as a nation and as policymakers."

Balsillie recommended that the government create a national data strategy that would drive development and innovation in Canada's tech sector.

He pointed to Europe's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which streamlines rules across the EU for international businesses and provides citizens with greater control of their personal data, protecting people from what Alberta Conservative Kelly McCauley called the Facebook and Google "monsters."

"I don't see them as monsters," Balsillie said. "I just see them as capitalists.

"The job of a corporation is to do what a corporation is supposed to do, and the job of government is to regulate."

While he agreed that the GDPR could be used as a model for regulation in Canada, Google's Colin McKay insisted that tighter rules and regulation would undermine the ability of small and large Canadian tech companies to compete on the global stage.

"What we're going to see over the next six months and more is companies struggling to understand what their obligations are," McKay said.

Google is being scrutinized in light of the Facebook privacy scandal, which saw British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica obtain Facebook data to build psychological profiles on a large portion of the U.S. electorate in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. The company was able to amass the database quickly with the help of an app that appeared to be a personality test.

The app collected data on tens of millions of people and their Facebook friends — even those who did not download the app themselves.

Committee members are exploring how Google manages the data it collects, questioning McKay on the company's ability to track users' locations and broader issues of government oversight.

The Google executive rejected claims from Balsillie and MPs that Google sells users' personal information and denounced Balsillie's recommendations as overly prescriptive.

"Creating a strategy that tries to box Canada in or tries to create obligations that are not either parallel or similar to those available elsewhere in the world will actually limit the opportunities available to Canadians to innovate both in Canada and internationally," McKay said.

Companies could destroy data

U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who testified before the committee prior to McKay and Balsillie taking the stage, cautioned that the powers held by Canada's information and privacy commissioner to investigate data breaches have fallen behind the rest of the world — especially given the exponential growth of tech companies.

"Even the powers that I have under the current U.K. data protection act weren't sufficient in this case, and government has moved really quickly and tabled amendments, which were passed last night, to provide us with even more powers," Denham said.

UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham says that Canada's Information and Privacy Commissioner's powers have fallen behind the rest of the world, especially in a world of digital companies. 1:35

Cambridge Analytica filed for bankruptcy last month, sparking concerns over the risk that it might destroy important data and compromise the investigation.

The U.K. warrant to investigate Cambridge Analytica took seven days to authorize — a long turnaround time that gave the company an opportunity to reorganize, Ontario Liberal MP Raj Saini said.

Cambridge Analytica employees have launched new organizations — Emerdata and Firecrest — as a way to evade official probes, Saini said.

"It seems like the same actors are trying to realign themselves," Saini said.

"If you move the physical assets of a company somewhere else, there's some accountability because you can see a desk being moved. You can see machinery being moved. But you're talking about data now, and data can be moved very quickly."

While the U.K. government has managed to secure data from Cambridge Analytica, Denham said that, in a digital world, information could be erased in the time that it takes to secure a warrant.

"The current provisions in our law don't allow us to be able to move quickly with a warrant," Denham said.

"We need to be able to respond to digital crimes."

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