October 5, 2012
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Should Government agencies tasked with protecting our privacy make their investigations more transparent and open?
I spotted this story on (eminent IT law professor) Michael Geist’s blog, discussing a recent study by the Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart into how well popular e-commerce and media websites in Canada protect their user’s personal information and seek informed consent. This is important work; the kind of pro-active investigation into privacy practices that sets a good example to other authorities tasked with protecting citizen’s personal data.
However, while the results of the study have been published, the Commissioner declined to name names of those websites it investigated. Geist rightly points out that this secrecy denies individuals the opportunity to reassess their use of the offending websites. Amid calls from the Commissioner for greater transparency in data protection generally – such as better security breach notification – this decision goes against the trend, and seems, to me, a missed opportunity.
This isn’t just about naming and shaming the bad guys. It is as much about encouraging good practice where it appears. But this evaluation should take place in the open. Privacy and Data Protection commissioners should leverage the power of public pressure to improve company privacy practices, rather than relying solely on their own enforcement powers.
Identifying the subjects of such investigations is not a radical suggestion. It has already happened in a number of high-profile investigations undertaken by the Canadian Privacy Commissioner (into Google and Facebook), as well by its relevant counterparts in other countries. The Irish Data Protection Commissioner has made the results of its investigation into Facebook openly available. The UK Information Commissioners Office regularly identifies the targets of its investigations. While the privacy of individual data controllers should be respected, the privacy of individual data subjects should come before the ‘privacy’ of organisations and businesses.
As I wrote in my last blog post, openness and transparency from those government agencies tasked with enforcing data protection has the potential to alleviate modern privacy concerns. The data and knowledge they hold should be considered basic public infrastructure for sound privacy decisions. Opening up data protection registers could help reveal who is doing what with our personal data. Investigations undertaken by the authorities into websites’ privacy practices are another important source of information to empower individual users. The more information we have about who is collecting our data and how well they are protecting it, the better we can assess their trustworthiness.