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Freedom & democracy cannot exist without privacy

A stern and principled warning from Daniel Therrien, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner (Office of the Privacy Commissioner).

January 28, 2019

Versions of this op-ed were published by two newspapers.

On this international Data Privacy Day, and after a year of severe abuses, it is worth reflecting on why it is essential to protect privacy.  

Privacy is often cast as an abstract or undervalued concept associated with a desire to keep secret certain aspects of our activities or our personality that we prefer to keep to ourselves.

This is a very narrow outlook. In fact, privacy is nothing less than a prerequisite for freedom:  the freedom to live and develop independently as a person, away from the watchful eye of a surveillance state or commercial enterprises, while still participating voluntarily and actively in the regular, day-to-day activities of a modern society.

Data-driven technologies undoubtedly bring great benefits to individuals.  They can be fun and convenient but they can also be powerful tools for personal development.  They open the door to huge opportunities for improving health care and hold the promise for a future built on artificial intelligence (AI) in which the possibilities seem endless.

On the other hand, these technologies also create new risks. For example, some AI applications, which rely on the massive accumulation of personal data, also put other fundamental rights at risk.

One such risk is the potential for discrimination against people resulting from decisions made by artificial intelligence systems. These systems are generally non-transparent and some have been found to rely on data sets that contain inherent bias, in violation of privacy principles. Such discrimination could potentially result in the restriction of availability of certain services, or result in the exclusion of people from certain aspects of personal, social and professional life, including employment.

In December, AI ethics researchers released the Montreal Declaration for the Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence – a set of 10 principles for developers and organizations that implement AI, as well as the individuals subject to it.

While this ethical framework marks an important, made-in-Canada development that should help guide this emerging sector, I would agree with the Declaration’s authors who say it is only a first step, and that public authorities now need to act.  Governments and legislators in particular have an important role to play in drawing on ethical principles to create an enforceable legal framework for AI that formally requires relevant actors to act fairly and responsibly.

We have also seen in recent years, and in particular in 2018, how privacy breaches can adversely impact the exercise of our democratic rights. The massive accumulation of personal data by certain state and commercial actors makes our democracies vulnerable to manipulation, including by foreign powers. It is unfortunate that the 2019 federal election will take place without any significant strengthening of our personal data protection laws.

In 2019, as the federal government and legislators consider what should be Canada’s national data strategy and laws for the modern age, it is important as a society to remember privacy’s role in protecting other fundamental rights and values, including freedom and democracy. If this happens, we will have drawn the right lessons from 2018.



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