What is privacy?
Privacy can mean different things to different people — sometimes, it can even mean different things at different times to a single person. There are many definitions of privacy. A very famous definition, from 1890, comes from a law review article by Warren and Brandeis, who said that privacy is the right to be let alone (“The Right to Privacy” (4 Harvard L.R. 193 Dec. 15, 1890). In this conception of privacy, people need privacy to allow them to develop independently, to explore their own identity and humanity. Privacy can also be about control, the right to choose which parts of our lives or personal information we want to share with others and which parts we wish to keep secret. Privacy is not just an individual value, however, it is a public value, that helps people exercise other rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and democratic participation. It is also a social value — something we negotiate with others in relationships (both online and off). When we think about privacy as something that primarily benefits individuals, it can encourage us to think in terms of trade-offs. This is the kind of argument you might hear when people talk about national security—how important is one person’s privacy versus the security and safety of many people? But when we think about it as a social and public good, it changes the conversations we may want to have.
— Why should I care about privacy? —
Everyone has information about themselves that they would never want to share with the world. Revealing personal information can be really embarrassing! And even if you think you have “nothing to hide,” is the same true for everyone you care about? Will it always be true for you?
Some laws that protect your privacy in Canada
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Charter)
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not explicitly include a right to privacy. However, several Charter provisions, such as Section 7 (the right to life, liberty and the security of the person) and Section 8 (the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure), do protect privacy. Section 8 is the most commonly discussed section when courts talk about privacy. It limits the government’s power to search a person, including a person’s residence or belongings, when that individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, it’s reasonable for a person to expect privacy in their own home. If the police wanted to enter a home to search for evidence of a crime, they would generally need to obtain legal authorization (a warrant) before they can enter and intrude on the private lives of the people who live there. By contrast, your expectation of privacy in your luggage is greatly reduced when you choose to travel via airplane (a means of travel with very important security concerns), so in general, it is reasonable for airport security to require an x-ray scan of the contents of your luggage before you are permitted to board. Charter violations are usually dealt with in court.
Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA)
Businesses will often need to collect personal information about you, such as name, age, income, telephone number, and more, to provide services or products.
PIPEDA is a federal law which sets out rules for how private sector businesses involved in commercial activities can gather, use and reveal an individual’s personal information. It also applies to federally-regulated organisations such as banks and telecommunications companies. The purpose of PIPEDA is to protect you from businesses using your information without your knowledge or consent. It requires organizations to tell you that they are collecting personal data and what they will do with that information, and it gives you the right to retrieve and request correction of your information held by the organization. PIPEDA was first passed in 2000 and most recently amended in 2015.
— Quick Facts about PIPEDA —
Three provinces have privacy legislation similar to PIPEDA.
Alberta, BC and Quebec have provincial private-sector legislation that applies to businesses in those provinces. PIPEDA applies in the rest of the provinces and territories.
PIPEDA is based on
10 Fair Information Principles:
• accountability• purpose specification • informed consent• limiting collection • limiting use, disclosure and retention • accuracy• appropriate safeguards • openness about information policies • individual access• providing recourse
PIPEDA does not apply to charities and non-profit organisations.
The Privacy Act provides rules for federal government institutions that collect, use and disclose the personal information of individuals in Canada. The Privacy Act also gives individuals the right to request access to and change personal information held by federal government organizations. For example, Statistics Canada is a federal institution. If you or a family member has ever responded to a census survey from Statistics Canada, your information would be protected by the Privacy Act.
The Privacy Act has “quasi-constitutional status” because privacy rights have been recognised by the Supreme Court of Canada as being “necessary to a free and democratic society: (Lavigne v. Canada (Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages 2002) SCC 53 at paras. 24-25). The Act was first passed in 1985.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) is responsible for ensuring that the government complies with the Privacy Act and that businesses comply with PIPEDA, and has the power to investigate complaints from individuals about how their personal information was handled.