Focusing Canadian Parliament on Digital Privacy Threats

Well-crafted and well-enforced legislation is needed to protect everyone

A city with the nightsky as a circuit board

In the wake of claims that TikTok harvests personal information, and that foreign governments might use content posted on social media to identify politically sensitive individuals, governments have banned its use on government-issued cellphones and devices. The concern also inspired Canada’s lawmakers to turn their attention to social media as a potential threat to privacy, safety, and national security.

Member of Parliament Iqra Khalid (Mississauga–Erin Mills, Liberal) proposed that the parliamentary Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics study the Use of Social Media Platforms for Data Harvesting and Unethical or Illicit Sharing of Personal Information with Foreign Entities.

The quasi-judicial Committee agreed with the need to explore this complex topic, and has heard testimony from TikTok—the only social media company so far that has accepted the Committee’s invitation to testify. The Committee has also heard from the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, and from representatives of the Canadian Security Establishment and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, who repeatedly said it's up to each person to make sure what they're consenting to, and to figure out what an organization will do with their personal information.

The final witness invited to address the Committee was privacy and data protection expert Sharon Polsky, MAPP, president of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada. Her testimony, which reflected the views of Council members and her own research through the last three decades, provided important insights about whether and how social media can undermine privacy, safety, security, and democracy.

Questioned about whether most users understand what they are agreeing to when they click “I Accept,”  Ms Polsky explained that many companies and regulators acknowledge that few people actually read website privacy policies; therefore, organizations are in violation of laws that require they obtain informed consent when or before collecting personal information. MP Matthew Greene (Hamilton Centre, NDP) engaged Ms Polsky in a discussion about the effectiveness of current consent mechanisms, and ways to improve the process. He expressed support for Ms Polsky’s recommendation to have a publicly accessible index of organizational compliance with privacy laws. Similarly, the Committee Chairman, MP John Brassard (Barrie–Innisfil, CPC) urged Ms Polsky to provide the Committee with a written submission expanding on the issues and recommendations raised in her testimony.

“Thanks for coming to the committee again. Your perspective is always fascinating.”
- ETHI Committee Member

In view of the concerns that lawmakers around the world have about children’s online safety, it was fitting that Ms Polsky was invited to testify on World Children’s Day.

World Children’s Day commemorates the 1989 adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child—the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. By ratifying this international legal framework, world leaders acknowledged that all children have inalienable rights, and they promised that governments would ensure that those rights would be protected and upheld.

Governments’ ability to safeguard children’s rights have been challenged by Big Tech, which has been allowed to infiltrate every aspect of our lives, largely unregulated or addressed by legislation that is inadequate—and inadequately enforced—to protect children and others who use social media and other online platforms.

Topic tags:
surveillance privacy Encryption government