Sunday, November 07, 2004

CIPPIC complaint raises a number of novel and interesting issues

The Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinc (CIPPIC) has complained to the Privacy Commissioner of Canada against an American company that harvests databases and public records to produce reports that include, in some cases, supposed psychosexual profiles. Accusearch (d/b/a/, which a takes a dim view of "privacy fanatics", is said to aggressively mine databases to produce their background checks, physchological profiles and the like.

CIPPIC, in its complaint filed in June, is alleging that Abika is collecting, using and disclosing the personal information of Canadians without consent, in violation of PIPEDA. The complaint also alleges that Abika violates the accuracy principle of PIPEDA by producing inaccurate reports.

This complaint is likely important in that the Commissioner will be forced to consider whether the activities of a US company, operating in the US, may violate PIPEDA. Of course, the next question is whether the Commissioner or the complainant can do anything about it.

For more info, see the Canadian Press report: Yahoo! News - U.S. firm's sale of personal data about Canadians sparks complaint.

The following is from the CIPPIC website, including a link to their complaint. (June 9, 2004)

After researching this online private investigation service, CIPPIC filed a complaint with the federal Privacy Commissioner alleging that the company's entire service is based on fundamental and widespread violations of privacy legislation. collects often highly sensitive personal information from various sources, and sells it to anyone willing to pay the associated fee.

Update: See also London Free Press: Firm under fire for privacy breach: A U.S. company sells personal information on Canadians' habits.

Update: On the first version of this posting, I mistakenly attributed the complaint to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.


Anonymous said...

Court Rulings of interest:

Excerpt of a ruling by 10th Circuit Court Judge Deanell Tacha:
"Although we may feel uncomfortable knowing that our personal information is circulating in the world, we live in an open society where information may usually pass freely," wrote 10th Circuit Court Judge Deanell Tacha. "A general level of discomfort from knowing that people can readily access information about us does not necessarily rise to the level of a substantial state interest ... for it is not based on an identified harm," Tacha wrote.

Excerpt of a ruling by Samuel Podberesky, assistant general counsel for aviation enforcement,
Privacy is not, an absolute 'personal and fundamental right ... particularly in the context of air travel," Podberesky wrote in the ruling.

Excerpt of a ruling by U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit
A company that provides e-mail service has the right to copy and read any message bound for its customers, a federal appeals court panel has ruled The court ruled that because e-mail is stored, even momentarily, in computers before it is routed to recipients, it is not subject to laws that apply to eavesdropping of telephone calls, which are continuously in transit. As a result, the majority said, companies or employers that own the computers are free to intercept messages before they are received by customers. In upholding a lower court decision, the appeals panel majority said Congress intended for "any temporary, intermediate storage" of communication to be governed by laws other than those involving wiretapping or other interception.

Anonymous said...

Human beings should be free to learn about each other, as they always have been. Consumers do not need a law to protect them from people trying to develop and offer goods and services. "Bad guy" behavior like fraud and identity theft is already illegal. A top-down regulatory approach to privacy threatens electronic commerce. An established shopkeeper on main street can see and speak to his customers. He can get an idea by just looking if they are regulars or newcomers, locals or tourists; he can chat with them and learn why they decided to buy or not to by a tempting item. By contrast, an electronic commerce merchant working from the web is blind and deaf. He is a stranger dealing with strangers over vast distances. Are his customers one-time visitors or are they more loyal? Are they young or old, male or female? If they fill out an order form and abandon it, why? Under these circumstances, its natural for a web site to try to learn more about its visitors. Regulations that would make it harder for businesses to collect information about markets threaten small business, in particular. Big companies already know who their customers are and can afford expensive lawyers to comply with complicated new rules. Small businesses would be hit harder.
You are starting a new business selling pets and pet supplies. Your competitors are big, well-established chains. You have no customers, and no way to find them. You can't afford television advertising. Your mass mailings have only a 2 percent response rate--the costs are far exceeding the benefits. You want to rent a mailing list from an established company in order to reach only customers who are interested in pets in your area. Then you discover that the only mailing list available is tiny, outdated, and very expensive. Fearing liability, many companies have stopped trading information about pet supply purchases. You decide that you just cannot afford to be in the pet business. Over the next decades, entrepreneurs will experiment and discover many amazing new things to do with information. Consumers will be able to get up-to-date information tailored to their tastes and preferences. The wasteful practice of sending out thousands of flyers to discover only a bare handful of interested customers will end. Prices will fall. New companies can benefit from what older companies have learned about what consumers really buy to start new businesses and offer new products. This means more choice and lower prices for consumers.
Sometimes companies and their employees will make mistakes. But that doesn't mean we need top-down regulation. In the age of the Internet, consumers can easily find what company offers the lowest prices and best service. Businesses with the best reputation for giving customers what they want--privacy, low prices, or anything else--will do best. In competitive markets, companies have every reason to respond to a real customer demand for confidentiality. Markets means that problems will be fixed from the bottom-up, in an endless and flexible process of learning and experimentation.

This bottom-up process is the only way to address concerns about privacy without strangling the development of the economy with red tape. It's one thing for a company to try to respond to their customer's demands voluntarily. It's another thing entirely for an army of lawyers to force entire industry to implement a one-size-fits all privacy policy.