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How much personal data should social platforms collect?

Prince Geoerge-Peace River-Northern Rockies MP Bob Zimmer Credit: Bernard Thibodeau, House of Commons Photo Services
Prince Geoerge-Peace River-Northern Rockies MP Bob Zimmer Credit: Bernard Thibodeau, House of Commons Photo Services

BY BOB ZIMMER

Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies MP

As Chair of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, I have been following the events surrounding the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, as well as how digital platforms collect and use our personal data, very closely.

As I learn more about the kind of information and data that these platforms can and do collect, the more concerned I have become.

For example, did you know that when you turn on a Roomba it not only cleans your carpet, but also collects data on the floor plans of your home? Or that Google Street View cars have been caught collecting Wi-Fi data, including passwords, images and documents, from houses while supposedly just mapping the neighbourhood? More recently, news broke that employees at Amazon can listen to recordings of everything your family says to your Alexa device.

So what is all of this type of information being used for? Mainly, to try to predict your behaviour and sell you stuff.

As Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, describes in a recent interview with New York magazine:

“Eventually it was discovered that they had significant predictive value and that’s what was used to create the kind of prediction products of where people would click that became the basis for these new online advertising markets.”

In other words, monetizing your personal information for big profit and often without your knowledge or consent.

Certainly most of us don’t mind being marketed to when we are looking to buy a certain product. In fact, I would argue that most of us would expect to be shown where we can purchase a product after searching for it online. However, it becomes a completely different situation when we are being manipulated by our data, that we thought was being kept private and for personal use, and being shown or not shown certain products based on the data profiles these companies create. Or, to take it even further, to be manipulated into voting a certain way, for a certain person, for a certain party … or not.

These are issues that countries around the world are grappling with and one of the reasons why our committee will be hosting the second meeting of the International Grand Committee in Ottawa on May 28. Representatives from at least nine countries will gather together once again as we continue to share our knowledge and best practices for protecting the rights of our citizens in the digital age. I am looking forward to this meeting and to hearing from other countries about their experiences in dealing with these important issues.

But we also need to hear from the digital platforms themselves, especially in light of the Privacy Commissioner’s recently released report which outlined not only how Facebook failed to protect the privacy of Canadians and broke federal and British Columbian privacy laws in the case involving Cambridge Analytica, but also how they refused to accept the report’s recommendations.

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