Canadian MP wants privacy laws updated to “accommodate” Google Street View

A Conservative MP from the Ottawa area wants to update Canada’s privacy law so services like Google’s Street View have a clearer road to legality.

Last week Nepean-Carleton MP Pierre Poilievre filed a motion before the access to information, privacy and ethics committee (of which he is a member) seeking Google CEO Eric Schmidt or a Canadian representative to appear before the Canadian government and help examine the privacy issues around Street View. He also has asked for the input of privacy advocates so the committee can make recommendations to the government.

Yesterday, in an editorial in the National Post, he made clear that those recommendations will address ways to “modernize” Canada’s privacy law to give photographic mapping services special privilege, along the lines of journalistic freedom.

“If the law does not accommodate this useful and popular service, then maybe the law needs fixing,” Poilievre writes. “The committee should come up with that fix now. Let’s get to work.”

Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act or PIPEDA came into effect Jan. 2004, he notes, well before Google Street View was available. “That is why the law needs to be updated.”

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s office, however, takes a different view, noting that Canada’s privacy law doesn’t include references to any specific technology for a reason, and there’s been an effort to keep the law technology neutral on privacy issues.

“[PIPEDA] doesn’t deal with RFID chips or geo-spatial technology,” says Elizabeth Denham, the assistant privacy commissioner of Canada. “We can’t be changing the law every time there is a new technology.”

The office is happy to appear before the committee to discuss the Street View issue, she adds.

Google’s Street View service has received attention from privacy advocates since its 2007 launch in the U.S.

In Canada, privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart wrote a letter to Google, informing the company that they must provide reasonable consent to Canadians before collecting images for Street View.

In addition, PIPEDA requires legitimate purposes for the retention of any such images in a database, and the ability of Canadians to see images of themselves in the database and correct any inaccuracies, Denham adds. There are also concerns about the security of images kept in a company’s database, whether its located in Canada or a foreign country.

Last month, Canpages.ca launched a competing service to Google’s Street View in several B.C. cities. The company also plans to roll the service out to the rest of Canada. It has also received the attention of privacy advocates.

To respond to privacy concerns, Google has offered to blur faces captured in the images as well as licence plates. Canpages.ca has agreed to blur images, but not licence plates.

But many questions remain about Google’s database of images. Unaltered images of Canadians are stored outside of national borders and it is unknown how long the images are retained.

“We keep the Street View data stored in multiple locations around the world,” says a Google spokesperson. “For operational reasons, retaining these images allows us to enhance the quality of the product and advance our efforts with technologies such as our state-of-the-art facial and licence-plate blurring.”

If stored in the U.S., the database would be vulnerable to the American Patriot Act. That would mean it could be investigated by authorities, without any of the affected people being informed of the search.

But Denham says there are concerns about image storage, no matter where it is.

“We’d be concerned about disclosure under certain circumstances,” she says. “As long as identifiable information is retained in a database, it can be subjected to disclosure through legal action. This could happen if the data is stored in Canada.”

The information, privacy and ethics committee is also concerned about ensuring that companies interested in offering photographic mapping services take appropriate precautions to protect privacy, says Bill Sksay, a NDP MP, who sits on the committee.

People are being photographed on the street in difficult situations, he says. In some cases, this could amount to an “invasion of people’s privacy and we want to make sure that privacy is assured.”

Retention of images and blurring of faces and licence plates are concerns, he adds. It is appropriate to have Google as a guest of the committee to hear about its services first-hand.

PIPEDA would require reasonable notification to be given before any photographs are collected, Denham says. That notification would have to be more than just a press release.

Many movie studios put up signage when they are filming in public areas, she points out. A similar effort made by photograph mapping companies would be appropriate.

Poilievre acknowledges this problem with the current law and the actions taken by Google in his editorial.

“Google could not store the images of the thousands of people it photographs without the prior permission of each and every one of them,” he writes. “That would be impossible, not to mention ridiculous.”

ITBusiness.ca requested an interview through Poilievre’s office, but he did not want to comment further.

A vote on Poilievre’s motion was delayed yesterday because of a technical reason, Siksay says. The committee will vote on the motion April 20.

It is expected to pass, he adds.

A Canadian privacy advocate, meanwhile, isn’t happy about what he sees as Poilievre’s change of tune on Google Street View and privacy.

In a blog posting yesterday, Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa cited an earlier Ottawa Citizen article where Poilievre voiced concerns about potential privacy risks posed by Google Street View.

 The article quoted Poilievere asking “is there going to be a mass database of people’s images? What are the benefits to Canada of allowing this to occur?”

The article said the Conservative MP was particularly concerned the original versions of those images – archived by Google — would not be blurred and that this could “pose a privacy risk for Canadians.” It said Poilievre also had questions about where the images would be stored and whether privacy laws could protect Canadians if the images were stored on a foreign computer server.

Geist noted that since he made these comments Poilievre appears to have had a change of heart. 

The Tory MP’s concerns now are “not that Canadian privacy law is too weak to address these issues, but rather that it is too strong,” Geist wrote. “Poilievre is now concerned that Canadian privacy law might create a barrier to Google Street View.”

Geist suggests the Conservative MP should focus on issues such as reform of Canadian private sector privacy law, the “do-not-call disaster“, the absence of anti-spam legislation or cross-border data transfer concerns.

“There is plenty he can do now without trying to undo a balance that permits a service like Google Street View but provides Canadians with some basic privacy safeguards.”

With files from Joaquim P. Menezes

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