Thursday, August 6, 2009

Protecting the goldfish in the cyberbowl

Today a rare shout out to a public servant who is always on top of her job and consistently works to defend our best interests. Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's Privacy Commissioner, handles many hot issues these days, including those emerging from the adoption of information technology by government.

Cavoukian first came to our attention last spring in a spirited discussion with Jesse Brown on the Search Engine podcast (recommended for all who are interested in the social impacts of technology).

That discussion centered on the security risks of RFID chips embedded in Ontario's new enhanced drivers licenses. They allow your personal information to be "sniffed" by anyone with a cheap scanner, creating an identity theft risk.

Refreshingly, Cavoukian did not follow the back-pedalling, defensive line usually taken by bureaucrats, explained the immediate need for using the risky chips (the U.S. June 1 deadline for entry documents), and committed to seeking safer alternatives currently in development.

Since then, she has tackled the opening of old adoption files, secret background checks on jurors, the recent online privacy breach at Toronto Hydro in which the personal information of 179,000 e-billing customers was stolen, and now the larger privacy issues associated with outsourcing to Google and others of key components of the much-touted "smart grid," the future of energy management here and elsewhere.

Cavoukian seems dedicated to advocating for privacy issues that are often ignored in a legislative and policy-making process that seems to focus almost exclusively on cost-cutting. She also avoids bureaucratese, and speaks in a direct, simple and forthright manner. In the process, she is becoming an international thought-leader just at the time she is most needed.

Update: On Oct. 5, 2009, Cavoukian ordered Ontario Crown attorneys to stop the widespread practice of collecting personal information on prospective jurors that does not relate to the Juries Act or Criminal Code eligibility criteria.

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