27 Jan 2012

Time for government, individuals to think “Less is More”


As the days tick down to Data Privacy Day itself, it’s time to reflect a little bit more about the words “Less is More,” how they apply and to whom.

What they mean for individuals is pretty clear. To put it another way, “beware what you share, because it could wind up anywhere.”

But what does “Less is More” mean for organizations and privacy, and governments in particular?

This was one of the questions addressed in remarks provided by Sue Lajoie, Director-General (Privacy Act) of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada before a group of federal public servants at an event hosted by the Canada School of Public Service in Ottawa.

She explained it this way: “The less personal information you collect, the more you limit the risk of data breaches and the embarrassment and lost trust they cause.”

“The less you collect, the more you protect against government furthering the widely-held stereotype of the state as an increasingly invasive and untrustworthy force in society.”

“And, the less you collect, the more you respect privacy as a long-observed, essential element of human freedom and dignity.”

It was noted that while the OPC is effectively the champion of Canadians’ privacy rights, public servants have an important role to play as guardians by making privacy considerations central to the design and administration of programs and other initiatives that collect personal information.

Sue pointed to the fact that thanks to advances in the power and efficiency of information technology, governments are approaching a veritable fork in the road when it comes to collecting personal information.   She pointed to recent research done by Brookings Institution scholar John Villasenor who notes that the falling costs and of hard drive space and rising capacity of computers will make it possible and even affordable for a government to establish enormous databases of information that could act as “a surveillance time machine, enabling state security services to retroactively eavesdrop on people in the months and years before they were designated as surveillance targets.”

While it’s not imagined that the government of a democratic country such as Canada would comprehend something so sinister, the research makes a point valid for governments of any persuasion.  As Sue noted today, “The question is no longer, can the state appropriate someone’s personal information, up to the point of leaving them as naked and helpless as the defendant in Kafka’s The Trial. The question is should it allow itself to do so? To what extent? And what are the moral, ethical and public policy issues around this?”

In a nutshell, our 2010-2011 Annual Report to Parliament on the Privacy Act asked, “Can the state curb its appetite for information about its citizens?”  And Sue’s remarks suggest that indeed, a moderation-based data diet may in fact be just what the doctor ordered for the ongoing heath of our democracy and respect of Canadians.


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