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Shout out to Canada

posted by:Marc Rotenberg // 09:07 PM // July 19, 2005 // Commentary &/or random thoughts

Those of us in the United States have the unpleasent habit of telling the rest of the world what to think and what to do. Now, on some things we are absolutely correct (baseball). But on other matters, we are seriously confused (Iraq). In the privacy world, we have a lot to learn from others. Don't get me wrong. On my short list of US privacy contributions: the Fourth Amendment, Justice Brandeis, our federal wiretap law (before the Patriot Act), and Fair Information Practices. But there is a lot we could learn from our neighbors to the North, which is to say the readers of this blog.

Four great things about Canada (from a privacy perspective):
- The comparative study of privacy law. Before folks like David Flaherty and Colin Bennet, no one thought much about comparing privacy laws and practices in different countries. Privacy scholarship focused on the experiences of particular countries. But David's book "Protecting Privacy in Surveillance
Societies" (Chapel Hill 1989 - I really know this) and Colin's 1992 book got everyone thinking in serious political science terms about how privacy laws could be assessed and compared.This was a big deal for EPIC. We started publishing the Privacy and Human Rights report in 1998. We looked at privacy practices all around the world. We borrowed a bit from the US State Department Annual
Human Rights report and followed the lead of traditional human rights organizations, such as Amnestry International and Human Rights Watch. By 2004, our annual privacy report was up to 800 page and 4,000 footnotes, and cost me a week of vacation in Athens. But that's a different story. In any case, thanks go to David Flaherty for reminding us all that privacy is worldwide issue.
- Privacy commissioners. I'm a big fan of the Canadian privacy commissioners. Jennifer Stoddart, Ann Cavoukian, David Loukidales, Bruce Philips, John Grace, and the rest. You are very lucky in Canada to have people in public office looking out for your privacy. In the US, we mostly have people who want to open our mail, listen to our phone calls, track our Internet activity, and report on what we read in libraries. Well, it may not be that bad. But you get the idea. It is a remarkable thing to have a privacy commissioner, and a genuine tragedy that 30 years after passage of the Privacy Act, the US has still failed to act on this central requirement.
- Privacy research. I'm also a big fan of such Canadian privacy scholars as Michael Gesit, David Lyons, Andrew Clement, and Richard Rosenberg. But special recognition goes to Ian Kerr for organzing the Anonequity project. Around the time that Ian approached me about the Anonequity project, I had also been approached to work on one of the projects that would be funded by John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness program. In the US, the idea seemed to be to enable mass public surveillance but with a privacy happy face attached. In Canada, the goal was to develop new techniques to protect privacy. I picked Canada and Ian's project. And so should other researchers who are serious about privacy. There is no integrity in placing a privacy sticker on a device that routinely records our private lives.
- My wife. Sorry to get personal, but I have a special affection for Canada because I met my wife-to-be at a financial privacy conference in Ottawa in 1991. She started talking about the application of the Coase Theorem to privacy protection, and I was smitten.
So, there it is. Four great things about Canada, from a privacy perspective. And P.S., Anna made me skate the canal, and I barely survived.

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