The Information Technology Era and Privacy

Let me begin by saying that the Information Technology Era has arrived …so
as I put down my ‘Most Obvious Statement of the Millennium’ award, I will
explain what this means and why I introduce my first ever legal blog with
this painfully obvious sentiment.

Over the years the world has been getting figuratively smaller with the
introduction of new and different means of communication and information
gathering. It is a safe assumption to state that this process has advanced
exponentially with the introduction of the Internet and all of its
intricacies. We currently live in a world where you can travel through
major cities from your living room thanks to by web powerhouses like
Google, and their Street View program. Search engines have placed
information on anything from classic literature to, sadly, making bombs
right at your finger tips.  And programs like Msn’s Hotmail and Messenger
make it so that communicating with someone as far as Australia or Japan is
as easy as picking up the phone to make a local call. Information is easy
to obtain, communication is cheaper, and the world is generally more
accessible.

Well things are never that easy and with the good cometh the inevitable
bad. Only in this case the bad is a force so big and strong that it may
never be stopped – and worst of all its prey is YOU, and your privacy.
That’s right folks; the Information Technology Era has turned its
attention onto us and all early indications are that the outcome is going
to be negative.

For example, there has recently been considerable attention in the media
to instances of employers rejecting candidates or firing employees based
on information obtained from “social networking sites” such as MySpace and
Facebook. Many students often have the misconception that only other
students could, or would access their profiles to learn more about them.
And while it is true that the information put in one’s ‘User Profile’ is
voluntarily shared with a few thousand schoolmates and friends, people
share this information about their personal lives with a reasonable
expectation of privacy. No one would intentionally sabotage their own
career in this way, but this is exactly what is happening as the
Information Technology Era creates this backfiring effect. I could only
imagine having to explain to my parents that I wasn’t able to secure an
articling position after $50, 000 worth of law school because of some
pictures of me, my friends and some empty bottles of Grey Goose.

The easy solution to this problem is to keep sensitive information about
your personal life off the World Wide Web, however the assault on our
privacy rights is not limited to voluntarily shared information as is
evident by Google’s new Street View. The Street View application uses
photographs captured at an earlier date to let computer users navigate
through city streets and neighbourhoods in major cities quickly and
easily. But the program, which relies on pictures taken without the
knowledge or consent of the people in them, seems to violate the basic
right of personal privacy in the worst way. Accordingly, Privacy
Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has written expressing concern to Google
about the problems that exist with respect to Canadian Privacy laws.

The Privacy Act dictates that a person must have knowledge and consent to
their being photographed. As such Street View represent’s a clear
violation of something our legislature intended to protect with the
Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic
Documents Act (PIPEDA). But the truth is that the Information Technology
Era is a beast which is forever changing and the law has been struggling
to keep up with the new issues that are constantly arising as a result.

How can the Information Technology Era be legislated? If Google’s Street
View is any indication, then the short answer is that it cannot. As the
technology improves to allow us access to more information and easier
communication, the privacy rights of the individual are pushed further
into our collective subconsciouses. Just look to the U.S. cities in which
Street View is currently available for examples of the disturbing
invasiveness of the program. From topless sunbathers to apartment grow-ops
(visit www.streetviewfun.com and www.laudontech.com for more hilarious
examples), nobody is safe from the Information Technology Era’s ‘All
Seeing Eye.’ So as Street View turns its focus onto our Canadian cities
make sure to keep your curtains drawn and your pants on, less you be the
next victim of the Information Technology Era.

One Comment
  1. The above post speaks to the impossibility of legislating technology vis-à-vis privacy rights. It prompted me to speculate on the nature of the relationship between law and technology as such. My surmise is that the relationship defies the dialectic, reciprocal relationship that typically characterizes law and social process, whereby each affects the other, leading to simultaneous evolution of both.

    Law always tends to lag behind technology, and by the time it catches up, technology would have moved ahead to a position where it escapes the grip of the law. This is simply because any law that comes into being to cure a particular imbalance created in the legal system by technology is necessarily frozen in time to be able to adequately deal with future advances in information technology.

    What does this mean for Google’s Street View project and people’s well-founded privacy concerns? I would think that while an ad hoc solution may be found within the PIPEDA framework by outlawing the technology or by allowing creative proposals like blurring identifying features on the images, collisions between privacy interests and technological advancement on the information superhighway will not cease. After Napster came Grokster. After Street View will come House View.

    Equilibrium, if ever, will perhaps be reached through the gradual evolution of social mores and understandings of what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy, which will then feed into the law. So, ultimately, it will be technology that will shape the contours of our privacy rights rather than vice versa.

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