The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

Canadians just don't care about privacy - Michael's essay

Privacy in private life is a hot topic world-wide, but here in Canada, not so much. Here's an excerpt: "If we really cherished our personal privacy, would we talk loudly on our phones in public, ignoring the presence of strangers? Would we blog or tweet or text some of our most personal information?"
Video surveillance cameras are common in downtown areas in Nova Scotia municipalities, a recent survey by the province's information and privacy office found. (Thomas Gerbet/Radio-Canada)

Two big city street scenes.

The young woman in the bus seat behind me was talking on her phone, obviously to a close friend.

She said, "Well they put him in remand and he wants me to go visit him. There's no trial date but I really don't want to go there." Everybody on the bus, heard her.

A forty-something man is on the phone and talking, while pushing the stroller of his young son.

He says, "But the thing is, it's not about the money." Pause. "Well, yes, that part's about the money of course." 

Privacy statement regarding Winnipeg Transit's Peggo card data usage. (City of Winnipeg)
Privacy is a hot topic worldwide. Thanks to Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and others, roiling debates about what privacy means in everyday life have taken on huge importance.

But in our private day-to-day world, how much do Canadians really care about personal privacy?

I would argue not much.

Privacy is not enshrined or protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Privacy protection is really only something which we've agreed to foster because it's the right thing to do.

If we really cherished our personal privacy, would we talk loudly on our phones, ignoring the presence of strangers? Would we blog or tweet or text some of our most personal information? Would we unfurl our deepest hopes and fears on Facebook?

Toronto transit riders can now use a PRESTO Smart Card, which records the time and location of every ride they take. Ann Cavoukian of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University, said consent to tie card users' identities with their route, must be explicitly noted so customers can opt out if they so choose. (CBC)
It wasn't all that long ago when discretion was part of our social arsenal. It was felt in bad taste to talk about our money or sex life or religion. We now live in an age of telling everybody everything. We put the information out there for the world to see, and the world sees it. And the world often responds in ways we don't like.

Canadians are split on the importance of privacy. Polls taken on the subject suggest that a majority of us don't want governments snooping into their personal data.

They don't like the idea of security agencies being able to dig into their phones or e-mails.

But when it comes to security, a vast majority of us approve of police snooping into the private data bins of suspected criminals or potential terrorists.

We put security over our privacy.

In a CBC/Toronto Star poll, nearly half of the 2,500 respondents agreed that police should have access to personal electronic devices. The poll also showed that men are more concerned with digital privacy than women, 55 per cent to 40 per cent.

I know a number of people, friends really, who believe that if they haven't done anything wrong, they have nothing to hide, therefore their personal privacy doesn't matter very much.

Whether we believe in a right to privacy theoretically is rapidly becoming moot.

In the current and on-rushing world, privacy will cease to exist. It will rest in the museum of our memories as a quaint social custom long gone, like men opening doors for women, or not talking during movies.

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. 
Government departments and agencies are required to report privacy breaches, both accidental and deliberate, of patient files. (Shutterstock)


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