Canada’s Data Privacy Commissioner, Daniel Therrien, announced Thursday that the country’s telecommunications firms and internet providers are gathering data on “how their networks are being used and used and abused.” This is the first step in the Canada-wide policy to protect data privacy, which is being hailed as a huge victory, even though it requires more details.
Governments around the world are grappling with questions around the use of big data. Their states and territories lack national or universal digital privacy laws; laws that spell out how customers should protect their own data and how companies must comply with those laws. While governments have rightly focused on increasing data protection in the interests of citizens, the corporate world is still far behind in adopting strong privacy laws.
Today, most major companies collect data in order to target specific ads, to data mine information such as weather patterns and personal likes or dislikes. But the problem is that as data grows, the nature of those companies’ business models changes. The “go-go” days of marketing via email based on a customer’s interest in a brand may soon end. While many businesses use data to provide better customer experiences, government and non-profits could also use it to significantly improve services and enhance efficiency. Data science can provide better answers, faster, cheaper, while also enhancing the person experience through better prediction, targeting and decision-making.
Why, then, the hesitation to adopt such policies? One potential explanation is that public attitude and action lag those of private corporations. In other words, it could be that corporations were more flexible and responsive in adopting privacy laws, while consumers and citizens didn’t fare as well. Perhaps even worse, corporations didn’t see data laws as a challenge because they realized that long-term risk is better than short-term reward.
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It is time for Canada to help drive the digital economy forward by meeting citizens’ demands for greater privacy and using the potential of data to improve decision-making and save money. Canada should offer their telecoms firms a national public data policy that requires companies to operate in compliance with the provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At the same time, the government should create a data-sharing standard to ensure that private-sector data is used in the most efficient manner to help government, and meet citizens’ future demands for more automated data-driven delivery models. All of this should begin with government leadership to lay out how businesses should protect Canadians’ data.
Canada’s telecoms firm plans are only the first steps toward an effective law. That can only happen if governments lead the way in making sure corporations comply with privacy laws, given that regulation is woefully inadequate.
The state of Canada’s privacy law is pathetic. As I have written before, the Canadian privacy commissioner has just one investigator per 10 million mobile and broadband internet users – and she is tasked with investigating state-owned telecommunications and internet providers. While such a worker is able to gain information about private data involving both private and public entities, the database remains private under Canadian law and is no longer able to disclose this information publicly. Some individuals are even able to gain information about their potential competitors, but doing so still requires an individual’s consent.
While the measures of a growing field of privacy law will not be made immediately by adding a new regulator, it is clear that more needs to be done. Now it is the government’s turn to take a leadership role in shaping the future of privacy law.