May 24, 2010

Privacy, Facebook and a New Information and Privacy Commissioner


Sometimes personal and policy issues collide or at least slide in side-by-side.  That happened for me when the BC Legislature appointed Elizabeth Denham as the province’s new Information and Privacy Commissioner on May 6th

Denham’s biography shows she has a strong background in privacy issues.  From 2003 to 2007 she worked on private sector privacy law in Alberta.  Since that time she has been Canada’s Assistant Privacy Commissioner.

In 2009 Denham and the federal Privacy Commissioner went after Facebook for the way it handles personal information.  Last summer she issued a report that found Facebook to have broken Canada’s privacy laws.  That August Facebook agreed to make changes but in January 2010 the Privacy Commissioner launched another investigation because of more changes to the social network’s privacy settings.  In April of this year Canada’s Privacy Commissioner and nine international colleagues warned giant internet companies to respect privacy rights of people around the world. 

Privacy Commissioners aren’t the only ones upset about the casual attitude towards privacy by the big social networks.  PC Magazine says:

Achieving maximum privacy on Facebook now requires you to click through 50 settings and more than 170 options. And even that won’t completely safeguard your info.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called for Facebook to follow its own principles when it comes to privacy.  And on May 21st the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook and other networks were sending data to advertising companies that could be used to find names and personal information. 

Here is where policy issues become personal.  I am a Facebook user.  I keep a very limited group of “friends.”  Recently two of my friends have quit the network because they could no longer tolerate Facebook’s dictatorial and intrusive demands about personal information.  Apparently they are not alone.  News reports say that Google Canada reports the top online search related to “Facebook account” is “delete Facebook,” I respect the principled decision to leave and have thought about doing it myself.  But in the last week I have also reconnected with two friends I had lost contact with years ago.  I don’t want leaving to be my only choice. 

Companies like Facebook and Google cannot be trusted to protect our personal information or to make it easy for us to do so.  There is just too much money to be made selling our information.  The only thing that will protect us is privacy laws.  So that is why I was glad to see the work Elizabeth Denham did on this in Ottawa.  I hope she keeps up the work here in British Columbia.

In replacing David Loukidelis she has big shoes to fill.  He took tough stands against government policy both on the issues of privacy and Freedom of Information.  Denham’s stand against Facebook leads me to hope the Legislature made the right decision in choosing her.