New Year’s Resolution: Hold on to your private data

Protecting personal privacy is the single greatest global challenge after the threat posed by climate change.

Despite alarming headlines, in 2018 Canadians continued to hand over piles of their private info to big international companies.

And Big Data took even more without asking; they’re exploiting a disconnect between what happens in the news, in the world “out there,” and our day-to-day experience. But as that gap shrinks and more of these breaches affect us as individuals, we will need to take privacy more seriously – and more personally.  

From banking to private conversations 

The past year had more people talking about privacy than ever, but there still aren't enough conversations surrounding this major issue. 

Take the effort by Statistics Canada, to request that banks provide them with the financial transaction information of hundreds of thousands of Canadians, without getting the consent of the people impacted or explaining why they need this information.  

Earlier in 2018 StatsCan lost and mishandled hundreds of census and employment files.

Red flags are flying, but because Canadians don’t understand or don’t care about the implications, they haven't been fighting back against data collection, and StatsCan is continuing with their project of gathering this personally identifiable, traceable information on financial transactions. 

Apathy towards protecting data reigned in 2018

Facebook is by now notorious for their apathetic attitude toward user privacy. The social media network has been in the news at least monthly with breaches that, in any other industry, would land a company’s CEO and other senior managers ousted.

From the Cambridge Analytica scandal where the consulting firm harvested data from millions of profiles without permission, to the security breach that let hackers control up to 50 million user profiles, it’s been a horrible year for the tech giant, but people are still not holding Facebook accountable. 

Then there’s Google Home and Amazon Alexa – there are no protections in place for data privacy within these systems. Just last month we learned that Amazon accidentally sent 1,700 recorded voice files from one Alexa user to a different European citizen, then tried to cover that breach by simply deleting the recordings. There were no real consequences for Amazon, and people kept using these questionable products. 

You’re paying, one way or another 

If you’re not paying in cash for an online service or product, you’re paying in personal data. 

Facebook is free and easy to use; Amazon Alexa’s cost is negligible – the affordability attracts customers, but the consequences elude them. It’s all part of surveillance capitalism, a term coined by business theorist Shoshana Zuboff, that essentially describes how companies capture and monetize our online and real-life behaviours. 

What’s the alternative? 

Canadian citizens should be able to access tools like Facebook, Amazon Alexa and Google Home, but should be given the option to either opt in to their advertising programs with full consent, or to pay a reasonable subscription fee and opt out of all this data collection. 

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” 
 - Edmund Burke

We know that privacy still isn’t a major issue for the average citizen, because MPs aren’t talking about it – they discuss issues that voters bring to them.  

When parliament resumes this year, we need to push for investigations of huge data-accumulating companies like Facebook. We need to push back against the StatsCan project and make it known that data collection without our consent is unacceptable. 

We need to fight for legislation like Europe’s GDPR that gives private citizens greater control over their own data.  

2019 is the year to be proactive and to push for privacy to be enshrined as a right for Canadians and others around the world.