Report

Privacy watchdog Jennifer Stoddart makes the Web a priority

The Globe and Mail

Canada' Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, poses for portrait in Ottawa on Friday, April 23, 2010. (Patrick Doyle for The Globe and Mail/Patrick Doyle for The Globe and Mail)

Canada’s privacy watchdog is already famous for staring down Facebook and crossing swords with Google, but a new report from Jennifer Stoddart’s office shows she isn’t finished dealing with the two Internet giants.

“Our message to all tech titans was clear,” says the Privacy Commissioner’s annual report, tabled in Parliament Tuesday. “Think about privacy before you launch a new application. Don’t just leave it to luck and the lawyers.”

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Ms. Stoddart has been in the spotlight in recent years for a public scolding of Facebook that eventually convinced the social-networking site to tighten its privacy controls. For example, Facebook acted on her recommendation to change third-party applications, which must now inform users of the kind of data they want to collect and obtain users’ permission before the information is released.

Large companies are becoming more receptive to requests from privacy watchdogs to change their operations to counter possible breaches of their users’ privacy, she said.

“Early on, we had a lot of trouble getting their attention,” Ms. Stoddart said in an interview Tuesday.

Ms. Stoddart said she now acts in concert with other privacy regulators from around the world, adding clout to her demands that Canadians must be able to maintain control over the way their information is used and shared online.

“We are in constant dialogue with the [Office of the Privacy Commissioner] and are constantly providing them with information to address any questions or concerns they have,” Victoria Freeman, a spokeswoman for Facebook, said by e-mail.

Ms. Stoddart said her office continues to investigate Facebook for other privacy concerns, including a complaint about the appearance of Facebook’s “Like” buttons on other websites, but said she could not offer details about the complaint until the investigation is resolved.

Another probe into Google’s Street View mapping application found the Google cars that collected images for the company’s online maps also gathered private information from wireless networks in Canada. The report indicates that Google has responded to recommendations from the commissioner’s office to delete or restrict access to the information and improve privacy training for Google employees.

Ms. Stoddart is concerned that companies still often have an attitude of “innovate first and let the lawyers mop up afterwards.”

“I think they’re doing a little bit less of that, but they’re in a world that encourages them to innovate,” Ms. Stoddart said, adding privacy concerns can sometimes be swept aside in a rush to beat competitors.

The report acknowledges that standards of privacy are changing as people increasingly live their lives online, but notes that most Canadians still want to be the ones in control of where their information ends up.

“Privacy remains an incredibly important and cherished value to Canadians – and to people around the world,” the report states.

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By the numbers

207

Total number of formal complaints received in 2010

45

Number of complaints made about financial services companies, such as banks and credit intermediaries

42

Number of complaints in which personal information has been used or disclosed without meaningful consent

11

Complaints related to social networking, websites or Internet service providers

44

Private-sector data breaches that were voluntarily reported

1

Complaint that a bank disclosed a woman’s personal information to her partner’s ex-wife’s lawyer

Compiled by Emily Jackson

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