Convenience technology threatening personal privacy, experts say

A young man wants a coffee. He consults an application on his smartphone that shows him nearby coffee shops, chooses one, and sits down with a cup. Meanwhile his friend who happens to be in the neighbourhood consults the same app to see which of his friends is in the area. He sends the first man a message, gets an invitation to join him, and walks into the coffee shop a few minutes later.

Convenience or invasion of privacy?

Potentially both, said Andrew Lewman, executive director of The Tor Project, a maker of online anonymity software. “That application looks really cool,” Lewman told a panel discussion on privacy and security at the 10th annual International Institute of Communications Canada conference in Ottawa on Tuesday. Having traveled in countries where he didn’t speak the language, Lewman said he would welcome an app that could help him simply tell a coffee shop from a hairdresser’s in a strange place.

But he had concerns based on past travel experiences too. “I’ve been in countries where the telco is government run and isn’t all that friendly to Americans traveling in their country,” he said. Government being able to track your location could get you in trouble, he warned – “I’ll tell you from being questioned at the border that just being in the same cellphone location as somebody else, that’s usually enough to detain you.”

The application was Wikitude World Browser, from an Wikitude Gmbh of Salzburg, Austria, and Suzanne Morin, assistant general counsel for privacy at Research in Motion Inc. and moderator of the panel, showed it to spark a discussion on the privacy implications of location-based services.

Panelist Chris Prince, strategic policy analyst in the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said such technology raised a need for “a critical balance.”

Panelists said it would be critical for users to understand what information they are making available to whom by using such an app, and how to turn it on and off.

That tied into a discussion on privacy policies, which more than one panelist pointed out are usually longwinded and obscure. “I question whether or not sometimes a 17-page document actually has as its purpose to inform,” commented Reilly Yeo, managing director of, a non-profit Canadian citizens’ group that promotes Internet openness. “How do we actually achieve that purpose to inform, so that we can have informed consent?”

Yeo also expressed concern about Canadian government moves to force Internet service providers to gather more information about subscriber activity in lawful access legislation. One concern is cost and who pays, she said. “The other is lack of judicial oversight.”

“Certainly we should be concerned about things like overt government surveillance,” agreed David Elder, counsel at law firm Stikeman Elliott LLP. But where does one draw the line? Elder suggested some concerns, such as those that lead people to seek to have their houses blurred out of Google Streetview images, may be excessive.

Elder said regulations intended to protect privacy sometimes have unintended consequences, as in the case of the U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Act, which put strict conditions on online services aimed at children with the unintended result that some major providers, including social networks, simply put a requirement in their terms and conditions that users must be over 13 or 18 years of age. That in turn has led to children and their parents lying to get access to services, he said.

Concerns about privacy and security are growing. Ken Cochrane, partner and national leader for public-sector IT advisory services at consulting firm KPMG LLP  in Ottawa, cited his firm’s studies showing increased consumer concern about both privacy and security worldwide in the past two years. But he also pointed to research showing that use of new payment methods such as mobile phones is increasing worldwide, and that industry executives believe ease of use and convenience are bigger factors in consumer acceptance than security.

Over all the panel suggested people care about privacy and security of their information, but also want convenience. They are more likely to accept what they understand, so as several panel members said, transparency is a key need.

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