29 Jul 2008

Privacy for the next decade, not next week

Is the privacy community weakening its influence by concentrating on the incidents and obsessions of everyday life? By reacting to decisions made by individual companies, by focusing on specific technical challenges and eventually acceding to the creation of tools that both solve those technical challenges and enable the gradual erosion of our right to privacy, are we behaving shortsightedly?

Are we focusing on the street signs and landmarks that dominate our behaviour as individuals, rather than helping identify and lay the roads that will guide the development of our society?

That’s the question posed by Professor Ian Kerr of the University of Ottawa at a private function in Edmonton last month. Speaking to an audience of Privacy Commissioners, Assistant Privacy Commissioners and senior privacy advocates, he worried that:

“… idealism is no longer in vogue. … My concern is that we in the privacy advocacy community are taking approaches that shrink any space for idealism; and that, as a result, we in the privacy community are, quite unintentionally and inadvertently, undermining ourselves. We are creating for ourselves a kind of silence through which we will no longer be heard.”

Professor Kerr went on to cite Langdon Winner, writing in 1980’s Autonomous Technology:

“Shielded by the conviction that technology is neutral and tool-like, a whole new order is built – piecemeal, step by step, with the parts and pieces linked together in novel ways – without the slightest public awareness or opportunity to dispute the character of the changes underway. It is somnambulism (rather than determinism) that characterizes technological politics… Silence is its distinctive mode of speech.”

Many privacy protection authorities, whether provincial, federal or international, find that most of their time and energy is occupied protecting the privacy rights of individuals, on a case by case basis. This is a result of their mandate to enforce specific legislation, the processes established within each office, and the natural impulse to ensure an individual’s rights are protected, errors are corrected and wrongs are addressed.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that privacy advocates – especially Privacy Commissioners – have an obligation to look beyond the transaction and to observe the trend, to anticipate challenges to our privacy rights and prepare counter arguments.

The text of Professor Kerr’s speech is available, as well as the audio.

5 Responses

Tyler Says:

If most of the time and energey of privacy protection authorities is occupied by protecting the privacy rights of individuals, then it sounds like these authorities could gain a lot of efficiencies by implementing systems that take after our favourite tech firms’ technical support departments. These systems are highly accessible, accountable (for the most part) and provide more useful data for trend analysis. These trends could be important markers for policy makers less prone to somnambulism.

Yes, I appreciate the irony of my suggestion.

Julianna Yau’s blog » Yesterday’s bookmarks Says:

[…] Privacy for the next decade, not next week […]

Frank Says:

Idealism certainly has its place in life and society. We’d all live in a much poorer world if there was nothing to aspire to except the mechanical administration of things 😉

But idealism without action is just idle dreaming. Idealism without dialogue and angagement is mere dogmatism or, worse, fanaticism. And idealism and action without responsibility is plain tyranny.

Like any human right, we will collectively get the privacy that we are ready to stand up and fight for.

Let those who profess to define the privacy ideals for all of society descend from the clouds and test their theories and dreams in the messy and complex surface of the real world. Let them build broad-based societal support for their ideals before they criticize those who fight the privacy wars every day in the trenches, who face thorny dilemmas defending privacy one victim at at a time, and who must make practical decisions that affect real people. It’s easy to critize, but harder to build.

We already have in Canada and the E.U. broad, pro-active, far-reaching and principles-based laws that define and govern privacy. Morevoer, we also have in place oversight authorities to interpret and apply these laws in a fair and impartial manner. To my mind, the broad societal framework for privacy has been largely established.

The task is now to go out an *apply* these overarching laws and principles in a systemic AND case-by-case manner, consistent with the general will of the people, and in a way that makes privacy real and relevant to all in society.

This is, of course, exactly what privacy regulators and privacy professionals do, every day. To suggest that they do not observe trends or see the big picture is unfair and needlesly provocative.

Colin McKay Says:

Thank you for a very well written and persuasive comment, Frank.

Frank Work Says:

I was at the function where Professor Kerr made his remarks. I confess that I squirmed in my seat: I thought he was speaking to me. But his remarks were insightful and provided a fitting reminder to me not to lose sight of the principles behind the laws my Office administers. And, with all due respect to my namesake poster, this is exactly what our academic colleagues (and rock musicians) should be doing: reminding us of the big picture, asking us to “imagine” what the fruits of our labours could be. Finally, the fact that Ian’s remarks moved the other Frank to enter the debate proves their value.

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