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Displaying items by tag: data protection

Last week I wrote about a very early ‘finding’ under Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act which raises some issues about how the law might apply in the rapidly developing big data environment. This week I look at a more recent ‘finding’ – this time 5 years old – that should raise red flags regarding the extent to which Canada’s laws will protect individual privacy in the big data age.

In 2009, the Assistant Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham (who is now the B.C. Privacy Commissioner) issued her findings as a result of an investigation into a complaint by the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic into the practices of a Canadian direct marketing company. The company combined information from different sources to create profiles of individuals linked to their home addresses. Customized mailing lists based on these profiles were then sold to clients looking for individuals falling within particular demographics for their products or services.

Consumer profiling is a big part of big data analytics, and today consumer profiles will draw upon vast stores of personal information collected from a broad range of online and offline sources. The data sources at issue in this case were much simpler, but the lessons that can be learned remain important.

The respondent organization used aggregate geodemographic data, which it obtained from Statistics Canada, and which was sorted according to census dissemination areas. This data was not specific to particular identifiable individuals – the aggregated data was not meant to reveal personal information, but it did give a sense of, for example, distribution of income by geographic area (in this case, by postal code). The company then took name and address information from telephone directories so as to match the demographic data with the name and location information derived from the directories. Based on the geo-demographic data, assumptions were made about income, marital status, likely home-ownership, and so on. The company also added its own assumptions about religion, ethnicity and gender based upon the telephone directory information – essentially drawing inferences based upon the subscribers’ names. These assumptions were made according to ‘proprietary models’. Other proprietary models were used to infer whether the individuals lived in single or multi-family dwellings. The result was a set of profiles of named individuals with inferences drawn about their income, ethnicity and gender. CIPPIC’s complaint was that the respondent company was collecting, using and disclosing the personal information of Canadians without their consent.

The findings of the Assistant Privacy Commissioner (APC) are troubling for a number of reasons. She began by characterizing the telephone directory information as “publicly available personal information”. Under PIPEDA, information that falls into this category, as defined by the regulations, can be collected, used and disclosed without consent, so long as the collection, use and disclosure are for the purposes for which it was made public. Telephone directories fall within the Regulations Specifying Publicly Available Information. However, the respondent organization did more than simply resell directory information.

Personal information is defined in PIPEDA as “information about an identifiable individual”. The APC characterized the aggregate geodemographic data as information about certain neighborhoods, and not information about identifiable individuals. She stated that “the fact that a person lives in a neighborhood with certain characteristics” was not personal information about that individual.

The final piece of information associated with the individuals in this case was the set of assumptions about, among other things, religion, ethnicity and gender. The APC characterized these as “assumptions”, rather than personal information – after all, the assumptions might not be correct.

Because the respondent’s clients provided the company with the demographic characteristics of the group it sought to reach, and because the respondent company merely furnished names and addresses in response to these requests, the APC concluded that the only personal information that was collected, used or disclosed was publicly available personal information for which consent was not required. (And, in case you are wondering, allowing people to contact individuals was one of the purposes for which telephone directory information is published – so the “use” by companies of sending out marketing information fell within the scope of the exception).

And thus, by considering each of the pieces of information used in the profile separately, the respondent’s creation of consumer profiles from diffuse information sources fell right through the cracks in Canada’s data protection legislation. This does not bode well for consumer privacy in an age of big data analytics.

The most troubling part of the approach taken by the APC is that which dismisses “assumptions” made about individuals as being merely assumptions and not personal information. Consumer profiling is about attributing characteristics to individuals based on an analysis of their personal information from a variety of sources. It is also about acting on those assumptions once the profile is created. The assumptions may be wrong, the data may be flawed, but the consumer will nonetheless have to bear the effects of that profile. These effects may be as minor as being sent advertising that may or may not match their activities or interests; but they could be as significant as decisions made about entitlements to certain products or services, about what price they should be offered for products or services, or about their desirability as a customer, tenant or employee. If the assumptions are not “actual” personal information, they certainly have the same effect, and should be treated as personal information. Indeed, the law accepts that personal information in the hands of an organization may be incorrect (hence the right to correct personal information), and it accepts that opinions about an individual constitute their personal information, even though the opinions may be unfair.

The treatment of the aggregate geodemographic information is also problematic. On its own, it is safe to say that aggregate geodemographic information is information about neighborhoods and not about individuals. But when someone looks up the names and addresses of the individuals living in an area and matches that information to the average age, income and other data associated with their postal codes, then they have converted that information into personal information. As with the ethnicity and gender assumptions, the age, income, and other assumptions may be close or they may be way off base. Either way, they become part of a profile of an individual that will be used to make decisions about that person. Leslie O’Keefe may not be Irish, he may not be a woman, and he may not make $100,000 a year – but if he is profiled in this way for marketing or other purposes, it is not clear why he should have no recourse under data protection laws.

Of course, the challenged faced by the APC in this case was how to manage the ‘balance’ set out in s. 3 of PIPEDA between the privacy interests of individuals and the commercial need to collect, use and disclose personal information. In this case, to find that consent – that cornerstone of data protection laws – was required for the use and disclosure of manufactured personal information, would be to hamstring an industry built on the sale of manufactured personal information. As the use – and the sophistication – of big data and big data analytics advances, organizations will continue to insist that they cannot function or compete without the use of massive stores of personal information. If this case is any indication, decision makers will be asked to continue to blur and shrink the edges of key concepts in the legislation, such as “consent” and “personal information”.

The PIPEDA complaint in this case dealt with relatively unsophisticated data used for relatively mundane purposes, and its importance may be too easily overlooked as a result. But how we define personal information and how we interpret data protection legislation will have enormous importance as to role of big data analytics in our lives continues to grow. Both this decision and the one discussed last week offer some insights into how Canada’s data protection laws might be interpreted or applied – and they raise red flags about the extent to which these laws are adequately suited to protecting privacy in the big data era.

Published in Privacy

Class action law suits for breach of privacy are becoming increasingly common in Canada. For example, the B.C. Supreme Court, the Ontario Superior Court, and Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court have all recently certified class action law suits in relation to alleged privacy breaches.

The use of the class action law suit can be a useful solution to some of the problems that plague the victims of privacy breaches. These difficulties include:

1) The lack of any other meaningful and effective recourse for a large scale privacy breach. Complaints regarding a large-scale privacy breach by a private sector corporation can be made to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada under the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) (or to his provincial counterparts in B.C., Quebec or Alberta, depending upon the nature of the corporation and its activities). However, the federal privacy commissioner can only investigate and issue a report with non-binding recommendations. He has no order-making powers. Further, there is no power to award damages. An individual who feels they have been harmed by a privacy breach must, after receiving the Commissioner’s report, make an application to Federal Court for compensation. Damage awards in Federal Court under PIPEDA have been very low, ranging from about $0 to $5000 (with a couple of outlier exceptions). This amount of damages will not likely compensate for the time and effort required to bring the legal action, let alone the harm from the privacy breach. Perhaps more importantly, a few thousand dollars may not be a significant deterrent for companies whose practices have led to the privacy breach. The Privacy Commissioner’s Office has called for reform of PIPEDA to include order making powers, and to give the Commissioner the authority to impose significant fines on companies whose conduct leads to significant privacy harms. Yet legislative reform in this area does not seem to be on the current government’s agenda.

2) The problem of establishing damages in privacy cases. It can be very difficult to establish damages in cases where privacy rights have been breached. For example, although a company’s data breach might affect tens or even hundreds of thousands of individuals, it may be very difficult for any of those individuals to show that the data breach has caused them any actual harm. Even if one or more of these individuals suffers identity theft, it may be impossible to link this back to that particular data breach. While all of the affected individuals may suffer some level of anxiety over the security of their personal information, it is hard to put a dollar value on this kind of anxiety – and courts have tended to take a rather conservative view in evaluating such harm. It simply might not be worth it for any individual to bring legal action in such circumstances – even if they were to succeed, their damages would likely not even come close to making the litigation worth their while.

3) The inaccessibility of justice on an individual scale. Frankly, the majority of Canadians are not in a financial position to take anyone to court for breach of privacy. (Those in province of Quebec might be slightly better off in this regard, as privacy rights are much clearer and better established in private law in that province than they are elsewhere in Canada). It should be noted that those few individuals who have sought damages in Federal Court for PIPEDA breaches have been self-represented – legal representation would simply be too costly given the stakes. A suit for the tort of invasion of privacy or for breach of a statutory privacy tort would be considerably more complex than an application for damages under PIPEDA. Damage awards in privacy cases are so low that litigation is not a realistic solution for most.

In this context it is not surprising that the class action law suit for breach of privacy is catching on in Canada. Such law suits allow large numbers of affected individuals to seek collective recourse. As mentioned earlier, the British Columbia Supreme Court recently certified a class action law suit against Facebook for breach of privacy rights protected under British Columbia’s Privacy Act. The claim in Douez v. Facebook, Inc. related to Facebook’s Sponsored Stories “product”. Advertisers who paid to make use of this product could use the names and likenesses of Facebook users in “sponsored stories” about their products or services. These “sponsored stories” would then be sent to the contacts of the person featured in the story. The court found that between September 9, 2012 and March 10, 2013, 1.8 million B.C. residents were featured in Sponsored Stories. The plaintiffs argued that this practice violated their privacy. Although the issues have not yet been litigated on their merits, the certification of the class action law suit allows the privacy claims to proceed on behalf of the significant number of affected individuals.

In Evans v. Bank of Nova Scotia, Justice Smith of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice certified a class action law suit against the Bank of Nova Scotia. In that case, an employee of the bank had, over almost a five year period, accessed highly confidential personal banking information of 643 customers. In June of 2012, the Bank notified these customers that there may have been unauthorized access to their banking information; 138 of these individuals later informed the bank that they were victims of identity theft or fraud. The bank employee subsequently admitted that he had channelled the banking information through his girlfriend to individuals who sought to use the information for illegal purposes. The lawsuit claims damages for invasion of privacy and negligence, among other things, and argues that the bank should be held vicariously liable for the actions of its employee.

Most recently, in Hynes v. Western Regional Integrated Health Authority, the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court certified a class action law suit against the Health Authority after it was discovered that an employee had improperly accessed 1,043 medical records without authorization. The information accessed included name and address information, as well as information about diagnostic and medical procedures at the hospital. This case is an example of where it may be difficult to assess or quantify the harm suffered by the particular individuals as a result of the breach, as it is not known how the information may have been used. The plaintiffs argued that both the statutory privacy tort in Newfoundland and the common law tort of intrusion upon seclusion were applicable, and that the Health Authority should be held vicariously liable for the acts of its employee. The also argued that the Health Authority had been negligent in its care of their personal information. The court found that the arguments raised met the necessary threshold at the class action certification stage – the merits remain to be determined once the case ultimately proceeds to trial.

What these three cases demonstrate is that class action law suits may give individuals a useful recourse in cases where data breaches have exposed their personal information and perhaps left them vulnerable to identify theft or other privacy harms. Such law suits may also act as a real incentive for companies to take privacy protection seriously. The cost of defending a class action law suit, combined with the possibility of a very substantial damages award (or settlement), and the potential reputational harm from high profile litigation, all provide financial incentives to properly safeguard personal information.

This may be welcome news for those who are concerned about what seems to be a proliferation of data breaches. It should not, however, let the federal government off the hook in terms of strengthening Canada’s private sector data protection legislation and giving the Privacy Commissioner more effective tools to act in the public interest to protect privacy by ensuring compliance with the legislation.


Published in Privacy
Wednesday, 02 July 2014 07:07

Privacy and Open Government

The public-oriented goals of the open government movement promise increased transparency and accountability of governments, enhanced citizen engagement and participation, improved service delivery, economic development and the stimulation of innovation. In part, these goals are to be achieved by making more and more government information public in reusable formats and under open licences. The Canadian federal government has committed to open government, and is currently seeking input on its implementation plan. The Ontario government is also in the process of developing an open government plan, and other provinces are at different stages of development of open government. Progress is also occurring at the municipal level across Canada, with notable open data and/or open government initiatives in Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa (to give a few examples).

Yet open government brings with it some privacy challenges that are not explicitly dealt with in existing laws for the protection of privacy. While there is some experience with these challenges in the access to information context (where privacy interests are routinely balanced against the goals of transparency and accountability (and see my posting on a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision on this issue), this experience may not be well adapted to developments such as open data and proactive disclosure, nor may it be entirely suited to the dramatic technological changes that have affected our information environment. In a recent open-access article, I identify three broad privacy challenges raised by open government. The first is how to balance privacy with transparency and accountability in the context of “public” personal information (for example, registry information that may now be put online and broadly shared). The second challenge flows from the disruption of traditional approaches to privacy based on a collapse of the distinctions between public and private sector actors. The third challenge is that of the potential for open government data—even if anonymized—to contribute to the big data environment in which citizens and their activities are increasingly monitored and profiled.

I invite you to have a look at this article, which is published in (2014) 6 Future Internet 397-413.

Published in Privacy
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