Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

To protect privacy, take it personally

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The United Nations has adopted a resolution naming online privacy a universal human right. In a text called Right to Privacy in the Digital Age, the UN General Assembly affirmed for the first time ever in late 2013 that all the privacy rights people have offline should also be protected online.

How nice of the UN to declare online privacy a fundamental right each of us is entitled to simply because we're human. It's too bad this doesn't mean a whole lot.

The resolution, like most UN resolutions and findings, has no teeth. It's non-binding which means any nation can choose whether or not it abides with the resolution.

Online privacy and government digital spying have become hot topics since National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed NSA's secret mass electronic surveillance inside and outside the U.S. It could be said that Snowden's disclosures are the main reason for the UN's sudden strong interest in online privacy.

But online privacy has been a contentious issue long before these revelations, especially between corporations and consumers. Companies use the wealth of personal information shared online through web searches, social media posts, digital media comments, chat boards, and sometimes even private emails, for financial gain. And Internet users who know this is happening aren't happy.

Social media giant Facebook has faced several privacy-related lawsuits since it was founded in 2004. The networking service is currently facing two new lawsuits alleging it not only scans links in private messages for targeted advertising, but also uses users' profiles to have them Like (the thumbs-up acknowledgement for posts, comments, and pages) a publication or product they've never endorsed.

Microsoft and Intel have been accused of tracking customers across the Internet. LinkedIn, Yahoo! and Google have faced accusations they've intercepted communications.

Last summer, a lawsuit accused Google of scanning Gmail's incoming and outgoing email messages to target users for advertising. In its motion to dismiss, Google said the plaintiffs were trying "to criminalize ordinary business practices that have been part of Google's free Gmail service since it was introduced nearly a decade ago," and that "all users give implied consent to the automated processing of their emails."

On Jan. 15, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada made public an investigation that found Google violated Canadian privacy law through targeted online advertising. The investigation started last year when a man complained that after he completed a web search for sleep apnea devices, Google ads started displaying related medical ads whenever he was online.

Using sensitive personal data in advertising, like information about a person's health, is against Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). Kudos to the privacy commissioner for taking on the mammoth Internet powerhouse, Google, to defend (or at least try to defend) Canadians' privacy online. And kudos to Google, too, for being willing to listen to the complaint and look into solutions.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely the commissioner would have been able to do much if Google decided not to co-operate. Our country's privacy watchdog doesn't have much of a bite.

According to the former privacy commissioner of Canada, Jennifer Stoddart, current Canadian privacy legislation doesn't have the power to force companies to protect our privacy online. "Right now, the only real power I have is to name (companies that break the law)," she said in a position paper released at the May 2013 International Association of Privacy Professionals.

So it seems the average, law-abiding John and Jane Q. Public can't count on Canadian privacy laws to fully protect our new universal human right to online privacy. On the plus side, there are steps that we can take, and resources we can use, to be proactive and reduce the tracking of our online activities.

One resource, a free tool called AdChoices (available at youradchoices.ca) developed by the Digital Advertising Alliance of Canada, allows Internet users to opt-out of online interest-based (behavioural) advertising from participating companies such as Google, Microsoft Advertising and Yahoo!.

What this means is that those who are bothered by the tracking of their online searches for the purposes of advertising now have an effective tool to significantly reduce this from happening.

This resource isn't going to solve all issues of digital data mining or fix the general lack of Internet privacy Canadians face. But it's a step in the right direction.

Diana Moes VandeHoef is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 A17

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