University students debate privacy issues

Since society appears to be teetering on the brink of mass hysteria over the possibility of having personal data bilked or used inappropriately – be it by a government, company or a more seedy alternative – infringement is on everyone’s mind.

Perhaps that concern is elevated in the minds of the younger generation, since it’s their demographic that will likely feel the brunt of the privacy argument regardless of which way it twists. On that premise, the University of Toronto’s Hart House Debating Club took to the task of exploring all the potential pros and cons of the aforementioned subject during the CITO/ITAC Technology Networking Breakfast, held recently in Toronto. Not only was there a modest, attentive audience of businesspersons on hand, but so too was Dr. Ann Cavoukian, information and privacy commissioner for Ontario.

Students Rory Mckeown and Stephanie Wilde teamed up to speak in favour of recognizing privacy as a human right, while their counterparts Janna Slotin and Michael Meeuwis were opposed to such a notion.

“Privacy is guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights,” Mckeown stated. “Personal property is considered as an extension of the person (who owns it), this is not a new concept. Any interference with that property constitutes a violation of my person…therefore, my personal records must be considered an extension of my person.

“We’ve seen the government take steps to preserve privacy and we’ve also seen the Medicare bill before Queen’s Park. The government argues they need access to medical records. Unless there is a compelling reason for divulging this kind of information on a person, it shouldn’t happen. I wouldn’t want my medical records made available to any government official.”

Slotin was quick to refute Mckeown’s contention that privacy is a human right.

“Giving up information to the government, the medical community, or the business community is not entirely evil,” she offered. “If we’re not careful, we’ll erect barriers (in society) and no longer share information and interact with other people.”

Slotin added another salient point regarding the issue of government’s access to private health information: “Certain information about oneself [should be divulged] if it’s beneficial to society. We aren’t concerned with individual health so much as public health. The government needs this information in order to protect society (from the outbreak of infectious disease).”

Protecting rights

“People will not feel comfortable giving accurate health information to their doctor if they suspect anyone in government can access that information,” countered Wilde. “The role of government is to provide protection of this fundamental right.

“It’s not reasonable for a group or organization to claim they have a right to (private) information…do you really want the world to know that you’re on the brink of bankruptcy or that you have HIV?”

Meeuwis countered this argument.

“I concur that access to information needs its limits – McDonald’s doesn’t need all my health information and thus deprive me of my order for a Big Mac,” he said. “The government, in certain circumstances, knows what’s best for you. The public health circumstance is one area where the government has some work to do, but they’re looking at the good of the whole rather the good of one.”

For her part, Cavoukian praised both sides of the debate before proceeding to advise the assembly of primarily IT professionals on the merits of secure business practices in the modern age.

“You’d never think to take someone’s property without consent…the same thing applies to certain privacy rights.”

She also took the opportunity to put in a good word for Ontario’s ambitions of launching a smart card for its citizens. “[Smart cards] don’t have to be privacy invasive, they can be privacy protective. Everyone thinks all their information will reside on one card, that’s not true,” she stated.

“But if greater features are added to it…segregated fields can be established so your health information can’t be accessed by someone who needs to view your fishing license, for example.”

On Jan. 16, Cavoukian launched an investigation into the use of biometrics software in Ontario’s casinos in which facial scans are taken of visitors to casinos and compared to mug shots in a police database.

“I have asked the government again and again to please consult with us before launching any program that may impinge on privacy. This program was never raised with my office and it should have been,” she said. “I have no idea if the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario or the Ontario Provincial Police even conducted a privacy impact assessment of this project to assess the risk to privacy.”