Privacy Commissioner urges Canadians to lock devices

A new study was released by the office of the privacy commissioner of Canada concerning Canadians’ attitudes to privacy settings online and on their phones.

The poll, 2011 Canadians and Privacy Survey, was conducted on behalf of the commissioner by Ottawa-based Harris/Decima, and found that “particularly with mobile communications devices, people who are using the new smart phones—new phones with enhanced capacities—only 40 per cent were using passwords to protect their personal information,” said Jennifer Stoddart, privacy commissioner of Canada.

Stoddart said that “while Canadians use technology a lot, use social networking sites a lot, many are not taking basic steps to protect their privacy.”

John Lawford, research analyst and lawyer at the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said that while these findings can sometimes be significant, “most of the findings are consistent with what they find every year.”

“It comes back down to what’s the default? With most consumer things the industry puts a lot of emphasis on the responsibility of the user but at the end of the day what matters, I think, is default settings and they’re inevitably set for the lowest common denominator,” Lawford said.

He argues that, while education seems to be the only real tool at the commissioner’s disposal, the scope of that education is not wide enough and can’t be expected to solve all of our privacy woes.

Stoddart said “people still worry about losing their wallets, losing their purses and so on; arguably, there’s far more personal information on these smart devices now.”

She said “a lot of our investigations and audits have to do with what private-sector companies are doing with people’s personal information. That being said, I think we also have a public education mandate to help Canadians step up to the plate and recognize what privacy settings are offered to them and to help consumers request more privacy possibilities in new technology.”

Lawford doesn’t agree. While he knows the limitations of what the commissioner can do, he isn’t surprised by the findings. He said, “of course they’re not careful, people are people, and when things get in their way, they don’t do it. When (security features are mandated) … and it’s done slightly paternalistically, they’re safer. If we think it’s a big problem, I’d like to end the debate over whether people should get off their arse and put in a password on their cell phone and get more into the debate of, shouldn’t the cell phone people make it so they have to take it?”

He added, “to me, that’s the more interesting question but you don’t get there from a poll. You just get the same answers over and over again.”

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