Privcy czar sees sharp drop in applications for research funding

The federal privacy commissioner has announced a list of recipients for research funding, but that list and the total funding is less than half of what it was last year.

This is the second time Jennifer Stoddart’s office has funded university researchers and other interest groups to prepare a series of reports on privacy topics. The first round of funding was announced in June 2004. At the time, $200,000 was set aside, but the commissioner’s office received so many deserving applications that $371,590 was actually spent to fund about 10 projects.

This year the commissioner is spending $148,850 split between five projects. Senior policy advisor Carman Baggaley said that the interest level had declined significantly and the office received fewer applications.

It’s difficult to determine what accounts for the drop, said Baggaley. It may have been that applicants that were rejected during the first round of funding didn’t want to chance a second application. It could also be that the topics the commissioner’s office wanted to focus on just didn’t hold the same level of interest.

The 2004 group of researchers included the University of Alberta researching the relationship between e-health records and PIPEDA and Halifax’s Dalhousie University working on an analysis of the privacy implications of RFID technology.

The 2005 group has narrowed to five participants, including Toronto’s Ryerson University looking at workplace surveillance technology, and the Ottawa-based Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic preparing a report on the data brokerage industry.

Philippa Lawson, director of CIPPIC, said that the $50,000 her organization has received will be used to pay staff and students to conduct research into companies that collect data such as the names, addresses and phone numbers of consumers and then sell those lists to third parties.

“From a privacy perspective, this is a really important industry that most Canadians know nothing about,” said Lawson. “It’s continually morphing and it’s very, very hard to get a handle on it.”

Some of the research Lawson is heading up will involve looking at the Web sites of these data collection companies to assess how closely they align with PIPEDA legislation. “If you’re going to assess how well a law is working, I think the first question you want to ask is, are the entities subject to it respecting it?” she said.

This is the first time Lawson has applied for a grant from the federal privacy commissioner’s office. CIPPIC is also funded by Industry Canada and other governmental agencies and private interests. She said it was difficult to prepare a cogent research application in time for the privacy commission’s initial 2004 deadline.

Timing is something that the body is working on, said Baggaley. He said that the office may consider starting the process earlier this year – as soon as the next few weeks – in order to give future applicants more time to prepare their research proposals. That may help to put the number of approved projects back to 2004 levels.

“That may increase interest,” he said. “For various reasons, we haven’t given potential research organizations as much time as we would like to either prepare their applications or do the research. We’re hoping to expand the timeline to something close to a full fiscal year.”

The direct impact on actual legislation of any of the research that has been conducted to date is difficult to assess, said assistant privacy commissioner Raymond D’Aoust, but it does affect policy outlook.

“We got some good value from the first round and we’re expecting good value from the second round as well,” he said. “All of this research is very, very closely tied to very salient policy issues that we’re currently examining.”

“What it may do is colour and affect how we approach some issues,” added Baggaley. “We may look at this, and based on research we receive, decide how we might address legislation that’s introduced (by other government departments).”

The office of the commissioner’s initial research budget of $200,000 will be raised to $500,000 for future years, said Baggaley, but will only be spent if research proposals are deemed appropriate and worthy.

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