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Ongoing privacy woes continue to threaten democracy

Reports about growing threats to our privacy, democracy and very freedom are common. So too is the lack of response from government, which does little to protect the public from predatory companies exploiting people – as purveyors of the police state, governments are only too happy to employ the same practices.

Last month’s report from the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is a case in point.

Daniel Therrien’s annual report noted these are challenging times for privacy.

“We have a crisis of trust. Polling tells us that 90 per cent of Canadians are very concerned about their inability to protect their privacy. Only 38 per cent of Canadians believe businesses respect their privacy rights. Only 55 per cent of Canadians believe government respects their privacy,” he says, noting some 30 million Canadians have suffered a data breach in the past year.

He called for a reformed private-sector privacy law that would put an end to self-regulation, meaning in part that it should no longer be drafted as an industry code of conduct. And while consent is important, it is unfair and not always effective to place much of the burden of privacy protection on the shoulders of individual consumers. It is the role of government and of independent regulators to protect citizens and restore balance in their relationship with organizations.

“Canadians want to enjoy the benefits of digital technologies, but they want to do it safely. Legislation should recognize and protect their freedom to live and develop independently as persons, away from the watchful eye and unconscious influence of a surveillance state or commercial enterprises, while still participating voluntarily and safely in the day-to-day activities of a modern society.”

Canada has done little to constrain the inherent evil of Facebook and its ilk, for instance. In fact, it’s been complicit in stealing your privacy and failing to protect you and your family from exploitation by both internal security (the Orwellian spy agencies) and corporate interests. The U.S., of course, is far worse, where there are no adults, no sanity and little in the way of functional government to protect children from mass shooters, let alone reel in the social media companies.

We are, of course, well-advised to fear governments taking away our privacy. The government has removing your rights as its primary goal. But they’re not the only ones putting us at risk: we’re often our own worst enemies.

With sites like Facebook, we’re laying ourselves bare to the world.

Facebook, like many Internet sites, exist to harvest information, sell it to advertisers and target you with personalized ads. Tracking is the norm, as is collecting as many details as possible of what each of us does online. There’s nothing neutral about most of it: this is not just a sociology study, though, of course, it’s that too.

Leaving aside the issue of why exactly people feel compelled to post the up-to-the-second minutia of their lives, there’s a danger of what you post being used against you.

That’s an obvious peril, brought about by, well, stupidity.

In the bigger picture, the Internet’s increasing presence in our lives means we have to set up rules that prevents abuse of technology that can track our every movement online. The marketing purposes behind much of what’s done today is a poor reason to allow it. The prospect of far more sinister motives means action is needed in short order.

Coupled with the undermining of privacy – embraced by governments not the least bit eager to protect their citizens – the sorry state of affairs brought on my social media companies should leave no one upset if they all suddenly went away tomorrow. Such would be a reason to rejoice, in fact.

There’s very little social about such sites, at least in the conventional human sense of the word. The occasional use is one thing – though the sites, along with the ubiquitous Google, are mining data, joined by the likes of the NSA – but there are many people, many of them young, who spend too much time and think too little of the consequences.

More than just too much information, poor judgment and bullying, such time spent online has societal implications. Hacking, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, online bots and a host of other technologies are increasingly part of an arsenal to sway public opinion on a massive scale, all based on psychological research being done by the same people investing in technology companies and the likes of right-wing websites such as Breitbart.

Such companies are developing increasingly sophisticated tools for gathering up large swathes of online data – the things you post and like on Facebook, for instance – in order to both predict your behaviour and to sway it. This goes beyond targeted advertising, which is itself somewhat problematic.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg argues today’s young users don’t have the privacy concerns of past generations – putting your information out there and being tracked is the norm. He’s fine with tracking users, and he assumes everyone else is, too.

Aside from the issue of being treated solely as date points for advertising purposes, you should be concerned about what Internet sites do with your information. Beyond potential embarrassment and employment troubles – the result of posting your bar-hopping escapades for all to see – access to your personal details is a fraudster’s dream in two words: identity theft.

“For good and bad, data-driven technologies are a disruptive force. They open the door for innovation and economic growth, but they have been shown to be harmful to rights, including privacy and democracy,” says Therrien.

“Canadians want to enjoy the benefits of digital technologies, but they want to do it safely. It is the role of government to give Canadians the assurance that legislation will protect their rights.

“Given that privacy is a fundamental human right and a necessary precondition to the exercise of other fundamental rights such as freedom and equality, the starting point should be to give privacy laws a rights-based foundation.”

Tougher government regulations, ideally outlawing the collection and storage of personal information for such trivial reasons, is what’s needed. Governments, however, have no regard for the public good, and are among the worst offenders.

For now, we’re on our own. And if you don’t look after your privacy, you can be sure someone else is glad you didn’t.

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