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Privacy commissioner aims to curb risky web behaviour

Privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart appears at the Senate science and technology committee hearing witnesses safety of consumer products in Ottawa on Wednesday Nov. 25, 2010.


Stephen and Laureen Harper discourage their kids from going on Facebook. Like any parents of young teenagers, they're very aware of the consequences of too much sharing on the social media website.

"We try to teach them privacy is privacy," Mrs. Harper told CTV's Lisa LaFlamme in the network's year-end interview. Added Prime Minister Harper: "They are aware of who they are as well and that there are risks."

Risks, indeed. In fact, those risks are detailed in a package of teaching tools "Protecting Your Online Rep" released Tuesday by Canada's Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart. It is aimed at students from Grade 7 to Grade 12.

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The package contains a video with a cool teenager explaining the pitfalls of sharing too much information and ruining your online reputation, a PowerPoint presentation for student and teachers and also "12 Quick Privacy Tips for Parents."

It's a tough read, one in which the Privacy Commissioner's office repeatedly warns kids that friends can turn on them, quickly become ex-friends and then release pictures and notes they thought were private.

It deals with strangers "creeping" around secretly on their web pages and warns against "geo-location" tagging because anyone, including complete strangers, will know their location.

And it emphasizes kids stop and think of the consequences before they click – before they send a picture or note they will regret for the rest of their lives.

"Nowadays, it takes only seconds to snap a photo and post it to the Internet," says the commissioner's slide presentation for teachers and students. "It takes a few seconds to post a comment. But it can be nearly impossible to permanently delete a photo or comment once it's posted."

More controversially, the presentation discusses the issue of sexting, in which kids send sexually explicit photographs or messages online.

"Think about the emotional or reputational damage that can come from having personal photos of yourself go to a friend who can become an ex-friend and forward them to everyone you know," according to the presentation.

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The advice: "This one is easy – don't do it. The risks and consequences are just too great. Don't send sexual messages or images across the Internet!"

In addition, the presentation includes several examples of poor behaviour under the heading, "lapse of judgment." There's the British Columbia principal, who on a beach holiday e-mailed a naked picture of himself to the mom of one of the kids at his school.

"Bad idea," according to the presentation. "She shared it with others and he lost his job."

Or, the 26-year-old man who tweeted, "If my plane is delayed I'm going to blow this place up!"

Another bad idea. Especially as he was arrested, banned from flying and had to prove he wasn't a terrorist.

"What you say in real life can be taken in a totally different context when you write it online," the document says.

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Ms. Stoddart released the package in advance of Data Privacy Day, which falls on Saturday.

In an accompanying document, Ms. Stoddart says that Canadians are "under constant pressure to share personal information." She notes, too, that Canadians are "the world's biggest Internet users, logging an average of 43.5 hours of online browsing per month."

This is almost twice the global average.

"But given the power and complexity of today's technologies, we should all be thinking less is more when it comes to sharing personal information on the Internet," she says.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister told CTV that it's difficult to protect kids from the onslaught of information.

"I don't know that you can really shield kids nowadays," he said. "Kids can get information any way adults can. It's at their fingertips with all the modern technology."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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