Curious, George?

You’d think George Radwanski would be getting tired of singing for his supper. And lunch. And breakfast.

There he was, at 8:45 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, fighting off the flu while giving the keynote address at the Canadian Institute’s Security and Privacy for Government On-Line conference. This was something of an encore performance. It was only eight months ago that Radwanski, the privacy commissioner of Canada, spoke at a very similar event to the same sort of audience. Even the speech itself was repetitious: the privacy of individual Canadians is put at risk by many public-sector online projects, and it is better to tackle them at the design stage than deal with it retroactively.

PC vendors like IBM, HP and Compaq have no problems recycling their material, of course, touting product features at trade show after trade show. For Radwanski, however, the refrain is necessary to reinforce issues that too few people care about until it’s too late.

He has been in this job for just over a year; Parliament appointed him to a seven-year term in October of 2000. Since then he has been on the move, using a variety of public speaking opportunities to push the same agenda. At Tuesday’s conference, which was sponsored by Technology in Government, he said there were signs of progress but that many key problems are not being examined.

In an ombudsman-style role, Radwanski is the official thorn in the side of all the people promising government efficiency and improved access to services through the Internet. He takes pains to point out the dangers of linking databases and giving some people more information on citizens than they need to know. He points out the differences between privacy (the right to control information about yourself), confidentiality (your obligation to protect other’s information) and security (the process of addressing threats to information). He asks why we need so many levels of authentication or digital identities for what should be simple transactions. He is touching all the bases.

These concerns are not just Radwanki’s alone, according to data released at the conference by public research firm Ekos. For example, approximately 53 per cent of Canadians say they feel they have less privacy than they did 10 years ago. Since the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, Ekos has been polling Canadians about once a week to see how privacy concerns fluctuate. The most recent finds suggest 45 per cent are worried that the government will overreact to the events of 9/11 in terms of privacy and security. I asked Radwanski whether the fear factor puts privacy on the back burner, but he had already come up with four guidelines to evaluating any security measures that could threaten privacy.

First of all, the threats must be so great that a potential compromise in privacy is the trade-off, he said. Secondly, it must be demonstrably effective — “It can’t just make us ‘feel’ safer,'” he said. It must be proportional to the threat; Radwanski worries that government might use a slegehammer to drive in a single nail. He also said there should be no other alternative than one which threatens privacy.

One audience member suggested that the office of the privacy commissioner lacked the teeth to really take on a company or public-sector department that was infringing upon privacy. Radwanski disagreed. “Publicity is a great persuasion tool; you don’t want your project to bring an oversight body like my office on you, trust me,” he said. “We could take people to court, but that could go all the way up to the Supreme Court, and that could take years. I think having the privacy commissioner of Canada taking you to task is a pretty good incentive to deal with an issue.”

It would be enough incentive for me. Like his provincial counterpart in Ontario, the estimable Ann Cavoukian, Radwanski is tireless and capable of juggling these complex challenges with a long-term outlook. In the news media, there is often a difficulty in covering issues like poverty and homelessness because they never seem to go away. Having started out as a journalist with the Montreal Gazzette and editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star, Radwanski understands this and is prepared to lengthen the industry’s attention span.

A bigger hurdle is the lack of available horror stories. To date, online privacy concerns mostly deal with what-if scenarios. Ekos data shows that only one out of five Canadians say they have experienced any infringements. When an audience member asked Radwanski for examples, he seemed momentarily stumped. As his campaign continues, he will need to find a balance between articulating the scope of the threat and needless fear mongering. If he’s half the storyteller he’s cracked up to be, he can do it.

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Shane Schick
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