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Data blurring between public, private sectors risks personal privacy: book

Lights on an internet switch illuminate a network cable in Ottawa, February 10, 2011.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

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Lights on an internet switch illuminate a network cable in Ottawa, February 10, 2011.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - Personal information is flowing between the public and private sectors in unprecedented ways, posing fresh risks to privacy, says a new book on surveillance in Canada.

Data gathered for one purpose may easily be used for another when public and private organizations share data, flying in the face of fair information practices, says "Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada."

The book, a collaborative effort by leading Canadian researchers who identify nine key trends, is to be launched at a conference on surveillance that begins Thursday at the University of Ottawa.

The authors conclude surveillance of all kinds is expanding rapidly due to society's newly digital existence at work, rest and play.

Many of the major trends in surveillance are going unnoticed because they bubble beneath the surface of mundane transactions, said Prof. David Lyon of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"There is no conspiracy," said Lyon, who led the research team. "When we use the word surveillance, all too frequently it conjures up these ideas of guys in trench coats on half-lit streets and so on. I think it's really important to get beyond that."

The accelerating demand for greater security in the post-9/11 era drives much of the surveillance, the authors say. But it's not always that simple.

They found the public and private worlds are increasingly intertwined for two reasons: a widespread belief that government and the private sector should work together to maximize efficiency, and the fact new technologies break down barriers, allowing data to flow in both directions without the traditional oversight of a judicial warrant.

The "complex and shifting network of relationships" among public agencies, private corporations and other institutions in the "vast grey area in between" makes simplistic metaphors about Big Brother meaningless while testing the adequacy of privacy laws, the book says.

It cites the growing role of banks, credit unions, life insurance companies and other businesses in identifying suspicious transactions and passing the findings to the federal anti-money laundering agency. In the same vein, airlines gather personal details about passengers on behalf of government security agents.

"It means that you can never know when personal information collected by government or police might become visible to commercial bodies or when data collected from a customer transaction could end up in a dispute over government benefits or could prevent you from boarding a flight," says the book.

Overall, the authors found it is more difficult to decide "what information is private and what is not."

In the technological realm, mobile and location-based surveillance is expanding, and surveillance takes place in "everyday environments" such as cars, buildings and homes.

Social media like Facebook have "facilitated an explosion of digitally enabled people watching," the book notes.

At the same time, people themselves are increasingly involved in the surveillance process through use of identification techniques such as fingerprinting, iris and facial scanning, and DNA testing.

Lyon says Canada, with its robust privacy laws and watchdogs, has a good track record on respecting the sensitivity of personal information.

But he warns against complacency, or simply adopting the stance that if one has nothing to hide, then there's nothing to worry about.

The way personal information is handled affects lives — determining everything from whether someone can enter a building to whether they are granted or denied privileges, Lyon said.

Surveillance is not bad in itself, he added.

"It's neither good nor bad, but it's never neutral."

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