According to a report from Canada.com, many Canadians don’t know how closely companies are tracking them online. A final report on public consultations held in 2010 regarding online privacy issues have revealed that there is a great lack of awareness on several fronts, ranging from a broad misunderstanding of online tracking to users not realizing they are providing informed consent to those tracking activities online.
Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart told a privacy symposium in Toronto that there are “serious concerns about online tracking, profiling and targeting, adding that “many Canadians don’t know what’s happening behind their computer screens, let alone agree to it.”
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The addition in recent years of geo-location data and social networking sites have further muddied the waters for many Canadians, and Stoddart has called on companies to be more forthcoming with customers about their online practices. While users are strongly encouraged to read “terms of service” agreements so that they can fully understand what permissions they are giving, companies may very well be taking advantage of the “firehose of information” that Canadians are exposed to when they go online.
Cloud computing was also brought up as a possible growing concern, as information stored in the “cloud” can be accessed more readily and is less expensive and resource-heavy for companies. Yet the recent outages of the Amazon servers and Sony’s PlayStation Network breach clearly shows the security risks involved when using cloud services. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner’s report addresses this by calling for the development of strong standards in order to to provide better security of personal information stored or processed on such services.
Children that are going online were seen as a particular challenge, as the report states:
“Online tracking, profiling and targeting is a highly complex environment in which to consider the appropriate type of consent. To begin, the ways in which data are collected, and the uses to which that data are put, are largely invisible to most user — and certainly more so to children. There are more players (e.g. websites, ad networks, data miners) involved, and the user may not know who those players are. Transparency and meaningfulness of consent are serious issues and they generated a great deal of discussion on the panels. It is perhaps easy to get lost in the issue of opt-in versus opt-out, but one issue that needs serious consideration is that of meaningfulness. Are the purposes and practices clear so that the consumer is giving meaningful consent? That is a question of fairness, as well as a requirement under the law — and it is one we think needs more focus.”
The report also added that challenges such as agreeing on a definition of personal information, what form of consent would be considered appropriate and what safeguards need to be implemented that would be deemed reasonable are going to have to be addressed. Stoddart suggested that legislative reform is essential as it would give her office more power to handle any company that is found to have inappropriately used or handled personal information.
The office of Canada’s Industry Minister Tony Clement has taken this under advisement, saying they are “aware of the suggestions and will consider them carefully.”