It’s NOT “just a number!”

by Ann Cavoukian 

I am becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of understanding of a key privacy issue – the ease of data linkages in an ever-increasingly online world, that renders otherwise non-identifiable information, identifiable.  

Ann Cavoukian, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario
Ann Cavoukian, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario

New analytic tools and algorithms now make it possible, not only to link a number with an identifiable individual, but also to combine information from multiple sources, ultimately creating a detailed personal profile of a personally-identifiable individual.  

In this information age, people are sharing personal information about themselves in new ways, including through personal blogs and social networking sites. Imagine a scenario where your “anonymous” comments on a newspaper website or in an online chat forum could be tracked back to you personally, simply by linking your IP address and browser data across multiple platforms. 

Even more troubling to me, the federal government is expected to introduce “lawful access” bills, if passed in their original form, would provide police with much greater ability to access and track information about identifiable individuals via innovative new communications technologies, without a warrant or any judicial authorization. In my view, this represents a looming system of “surveillance by design,” that should concern us all in a free and democratic society. 

Fortunately we have a solution. By proactively embedding the principles of Privacy by Design(PbD) into the development of new information technologies and systems, personal information may continue to receive the protections intended. PbD was developed in part to lay to rest the dated “zero-sum” mindset that privacy must be sacrificed for security. PbD seeks to accommodate both legitimate interests in a “positive-sum, win-win” manner, not through the “either/or, zero-sum” approach, where unnecessary trade-offs must be made. 

If we ever lose our right to privacy, there will be little to distinguish our society from that of a totalitarian state.  Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen… Let us make sure that privacy and freedom live on, well into the future.    

To commemorate International Privacy Day, I am holding a public Symposium on Friday January 27, Beware of “Surveillance by Design:” Standing Up for Freedom and Privacy, where highly-respected thought leaders will discuss the privacy implications of proposed federal bills providing police with “lawful access” to individuals’ telecommunications. I encourage you to sign up for the webcast to learn more about this serious issue. Details can be found at



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