Privacy not at odds with technology, says Ann Cavoukian

Privacy is being eroded because of the belief that it must be traded in for improved security or increased efficiency, cautions Ontario’s Privacy Commissioner.

Ann Cavoukian is calling for a radically new approach that doesn’t pit technology against privacy – but sees them in a symbiotic relationship.

Cavoukian articulated some of her privacy concerns in a white paper titled “Privacy and Radical Pragmatism” released earlier this week.

She also highlighted these in an interview with ITBusiness.ca.

Efficiency being paramount in today’s global economy, privacy concerns are often shunted off to the sidelines,  Cavoukian notes.  

She says there’s a belief that a technology’s function could be hampered adding privacy controls,  but that doesn’t have to be the case.

You can have privacy as well as the intended use of technology – a win-win scenario, she says.

Other industry insiders also maintain that there’s a significant erosion of privacy in today’s world.

Abuse of technology is a big part of the problem, say experts from Plano, Texas-based IT services firm EDS Corp.  

“It’s getting cheaper and easier all the time to attain privacy-invading technologies,” notes Jeff Wacker, a futurist with EDS.

He says just a few years ago it was hard to get the equipment needed to create an identity theft kit. Now anyone can walk in to a store and purchase a pre-made kit for $49.95.

As technology becomes more pervasive in society, people’s understanding of the privacy risks is a big concern, says Peter Reid, chief privacy officer at EDS. “You need to design privacy into new technologies.”

Cavoukian echoes this view.

“You [won’t] have any privacy in the future unless it’s insured by embedding it in the technology.”   

Privacy-Enhancing Technologies (PET) – a term first coined in 1995 –encompasses systems that promote a technology’s use, while minimizing the risk of privacy violations.

A diagram shows how clipped-tag RFID works.

A couple of current examples include file encryption and online anonymizers. In future, the scope of such systems is expected to extend to biometric encryption, clipped-tag RFID, and surveillance technologies.

Wacker says Motorola is looking to enable a person to use their fingerprint to turn their phone on. It’s an example of the type of built-in technology that ensures privacy, while not preventing the device from being used by the intended user.

Another instance cited by Cavoukian is the IBM-developed clipped-tag RFID system, being manufactured by Toronto-based Marnlen RFiD.

The tags allow a consumer to rip off the major part of an RFID chip’s antennae, shortening its readable range from meters to inches.

“The beauty of the clipped tag is it allows an RFID tag to be enabled but also protects security,” Cavoukian says. The possibility of surreptitious data readers is minimized.

Another suggestion to prevent RFID technology-related privacy violations is destroying the chip at the time of sale.  

As RFID technology is increasingly used in the retail sector, some believe privacy concerns are often exaggerated.  

“I don’t care if someone knows that I’ve bought Twinkies or Ho-ho’s,” Wacker adds. “People think if you have your shopping bag in your trunk and are driving down the Interstate thousands of people can see what you bought.” That’s just not the case.

Cavoukian’s vision is of a win-win situation where privacy doesn’t hamper technology but contributes to a system’s overall design.

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