A new report by Shay Hershkovitz, a former Israeli intelligence officer, argues that Canadian civil liberties are increasingly jeopardized as new developments in technology allow for more pervasive collection of private data. Spycraft – a set of modern technologies for espionage, are expanding as smart devices with expansive artificial intelligence capabilities and unlimited storage become increasingly common.

With over 50 billion smart devices connected to the internet by next year, Hershkovitz warns that “legislators will have to limit the use of these technologies.” Part of this acceleration is due to significant decreases in the price of data, from $500,000 per gigabyte in 1980 to two cents today. New legislation requires the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to request judicial approval to maintain datasets with Canadian personal information. 

Federal Investigations into Facebook

This report comes after a 2010 investigation into the legality of Facebook’s policies as it relates to Canada’s 1983 Privacy Act. The investigation was triggered by reports that a personality quiz within the “This Is Your Digital Life” app enabled Facebook to collect personal information of both players and their Facebook friends. This information was later used by Cambridge Analytica, the British political consulting firm that harvested the data of 87 million Facebook users to create targeting advertising in support of then-candidate Donald Trump. 

The report concluded that 600,000 Canadians were affected by Facebook malpractice which included: “Failing to obtain valid and meaningful consent of installing users; Failing to obtain meaningful consent from friends of installing users; Having inadequate safeguards to protect user information; and Failing to be accountable for the user information under its control.”

The report also concluded that out of the twelve concerns raised, four issues were dismissed as not well-founded, four were considered resolved after Facebook agreed to make specific changes to its policies or practices and an additional four aspects of the complaint remained unresolved. While a major concern of the initial report was Facebook’s extensive targeted advertising, the Commissioner “considered this matter to be resolved.” That stated, since the complaint was made, Facebook’s targeted advertising model has changed significantly.

In April, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, head of Canada’s federal privacy watchdog, took Facebook to court after revelations that the social media giant infringed on Canadian privacy rights and failed to take adequate measures to safely store Canadians’ personal information. British Columbia Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy, who worked with Therrien in the investigation, argued that “both at a federal and provincial level, Canada has a lot of catching up to do” in introducing privacy regulations that meet the technological  developments in data collection and spycraft. 

Party Policies on Canadian Privacy

McEvoy called on the government to levy meaningful fines as a starting point. Therrien also complained that while the privacy agency has “called for amendments to privacy law for quite some time,” government action has been too slow. While Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould stated that “the time of self regulation has come to an end,” the Liberals have withheld federal action, possibly because the investigation took place just months before the 2019 federal election.

New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus criticized the Liberal party for their inaction on recommendations from investigation, arguing that Justin Trudeau’s government has prioritized a “cozy relationship with the American tech giants” ahead of Canadians’ privacy rights. 

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer also criticized the government for being “particularly careless on cybersecurity,” stating that “it’s past-time the federal government did something to protect Canadians’ information online.” Before the election, he also promised to amend the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) to require that companies use plain languages in data collection agreements to ensure informed consent. Additionally, the Conservatives want to create a “Canada Cyber Safe” brand so that consumers are aware of companies meeting rigorous security standards.

In response to criticism, Erin Taylor – a communications manager for Facebook Canada, championed “dramatic improvements” in Facebook’s ability to protect personal information and protested Therrien’s claim that Canadian data was shared with Cambridge Analytica. Therrien responded “the stark contradiction between Facebook’s public promises to mend its ways on privacy and its refusal to address the serious problems we’ve identified — or even acknowledge that it broke the law — is extremely concerning.” Reforms have also been hindered by the fact that Facebook has refused to submit to government requests of audits of its privacy policies and practices.

Edited by Eyitayo Kunle-Oladosu.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Featured Image via Creative Commons.