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B.C. privacy commissioner has a passion for data protection

David Parkings Illustration

If you have nothing to hide, then what do you have to fear?

Such is the common refrain in the debate between privacy and security, the argument that if an individual engages only in legal activity, then it shouldn't matter if government, authorities, websites or other entities collect and analyze her personal data.

It's an argument Elizabeth Denham, B.C.'s information and privacy commissioner since May, 2010, has heard many times – and swiftly flips around: "If you are an average, law-abiding citizen," she says, "why should your digital communications be subject to surveillance?"

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The issues of privacy and surveillance were thrust into the spotlight again with the saga of Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) turned fugitive whistle-blower. The 30-year-old has been on the lam since May after revealing details of classified intelligence programs, including Prism, which gives the NSA direct access into the systems of Internet giants including Google, Apple and Facebook, according to British newspaper The Guardian. Accessible user data reportedly includes search histories, e-mail content and live chats. But while that story has taken on the quality of a big-screen thriller through breathless international coverage, many remain oblivious to the day-to-day privacy breaches of ordinary citizens and their potential implications.

"Data protection, I think, is more important now than it's ever been, especially in the face of massive volumes of personal information that's collected and analyzed by both public- and private-sector organizations," Ms. Denham said. "Individuals' ability to control their personal information is more challenging than it's ever been."

Ms. Denham's passion can be traced back to her upbringing. Her parents ardently followed the civil-rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s and her father and grandfather would "make history come alive" for her with spirited stories of the past and political debates at the dinner table, she said.

In the early 1980s, she pursued graduate studies in information and archival science at the University of British Columbia. She then went on to work as an archivist.

"At that time, there was a groundswell of interest in preserving the integrity of information as a national resource and I wanted to be part of that," she said.

Before becoming B.C.'s information and privacy commissioner, she served as assistant privacy commissioner of Canada from 2007 to 2010 and the director of compliance in the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta from 2003 to 2007.

In 2009, as assistant privacy commissioner of Canada, Ms. Denham led an investigation into the privacy practices of Facebook. It was the first time a data-protection regulator had laid bare the business model of the social-networking site – detailing the amount of data third-party applications could scrape from users and the fact Facebook kept information from even deleted accounts indefinitely – and resulted in changes, enhancing controls and transparency.

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The same year, her office consulted with Google about how its "street view" feature could be rolled out in Canada "in a way that was consistent with Canadian law and Canadian values."

At that time, faces and licence plates were visible in the street-level imagery, which was only available in the U.S.; they were blurred out when the feature became available in Canada.

As B.C.'s privacy commissioner, she has investigated the use of automated licence-plate recognition technology by police and facial-recognition technology by the Insurance Corp. of B.C. She was recently one of 36 privacy commissioners who signed a letter urging Google to respond to questions and concerns related to Google Glass, its new wearable computer.

"A lot of the work we do in our office is to pull back the curtain of the way certain technologies work," she said.

Meanwhile, Canadian governments and privacy commissioners must assess existing and proposed safety and security initiatives to ensure privacy rights are not unnecessarily encroached upon, Ms. Denham said. In return, the public must decide how much "secret snooping" it is willing to accept and under which conditions.

"It's important for people to think about that, and not just where Edward Snowden is," she said. "It's time for us to have a public debate on this, because what's at stake here is our democratic rights."

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Editor's Note: Clarification: This article refers to a Guardian newspaper report that "Prism had given the NSA direct access into the systems of Internet giants including Google, Apple and Facebook." While The Guardian based its story on top-secret material passed to their reporter, Google has denied it had joined Prism and Facebook has said it had never received compensation in connection with responding to a government data request.

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About the Author
News reporter

Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More


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