Monday, November 29, 2010

Ottawa Citizen: On guard for privacy

The Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, is the subject of a very complimentary editorial in today's Ottawa Citizen.

On guard for privacy


The rule for political survival under Stephen Harper's government seems to be: smile and nod, and hope no one notices you. So it's a nice surprise that the prime minister has nominated Canada's high-profile privacy commissioner for re-appointment.

Jennifer Stoddart is no sycophant. And she seems to have avoided the administrative and budgetary pitfalls that claimed the careers or marred the work of other officers of Parliament. Seven years ago, she took over an office in disarray, and turned it into an internationally recognized storehouse of expertise. Her office deals with a large workload. She often has to pronounce on questions while they are in the headlines. There's an urgency to every matter she takes on, because when an individual's privacy is under threat, a remedy delayed is a remedy denied.

Most recently, she's expressed concern about how governments will manage the information they gather on airline passengers. Notably, though, she doesn't rail against the whole concept of data collection. She's not a slavish defender of privacy at the cost of every other consideration. Her advice on airline security, as in all matters, is balanced and sensible. If a policy has an unwarranted or unnecessary effect on privacy, Stoddart will point out ways the government can mitigate those effects. When there is a clear breach, though, she doesn't mince words. She recently said Veterans Affairs' treatment of veteran Sean Bruyea was "alarming" and might be an indicator of a systemic problem. Stoddart's office has been pushing Facebook to make changes for several years, and has criticized a careless mistake Google Inc. made in collecting information for its Street View application.

In any era, Canadians would be lucky to have a privacy commissioner ready to denounce and recommend fixes for an egregious but conventional breach of an individual's rights, as happened in the Bruyea case. Stoddart, though, is particularly suited for this age, when new kinds of co-operation between states, new global business models and new territories in cyberspace are forcing privacy advocates to keep one step ahead.

Technology is changing fast. One gets the sense, though, that Stoddart finds that exciting, as well as challenging. She's no Luddite. She wants to improve the world of social media, not sneer at it. She treats privacy as an essential living element of 21st-century citizenship. That's important, because when privacy advocates buy into a binary world view that sees privacy and engagement as opposing principles, that encourages the developers of new technology to dismiss privacy as the concern of a bygone era.

There will be a lot of work to do in the next few years, as governments continue to refine their security protocols and as cyberspace takes on new forms. No public servant should develop a sense of entitlement, but Stoddart shows no signs of doing so. She's working hard, getting results and is eminently qualified to keep leading this fight for the next few years.

Stoddart has been nothing but fair to this government, and has given it no reason to punish her. It's quite possible, though, that her independent spirit and sharp mind will prove inconvenient to any government on the receiving end of one of her reports. The Harper government, to its credit, has shown itself willing to take that political risk for the good of the country.

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