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Jim Balsillie: Liberal privacy bill fails to curtail surveillance economy or protect Canadians

3 Mins read

The government’s proposed legislation would not curb the mass surveillance or behaviour manipulation the tech industry currently engages in with impunity

Last November, the federal government introduced the digital charter implementation act, a long overdue update to Canada’s privacy laws. The idea was welcomed by privacy experts because our current data governance rules are wildly out of date, having been created 20 years ago, a year before Google pioneered a business model based on mass surveillance without consent, which rendered existing privacy protections woefully inadequate. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation, Bill C-11, will do little to curb the abuses of the surveillance economy or protect the rights of Canadians.

The business model pioneered by Google takes human experience — not just your searches, but also where you go, what you buy, who you meet or communicate with, your heart rate, income, political views, desires and prejudices — as its raw material and monetizes it by pushing micro-targeted content to individual users. The algorithms that push this content are addictive by design and exploit negative emotions — or, as Facebook insiders say, “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.”

In the early 21st century, every industry became a technology industry, and now just about every internet-enabled device, and online service, is a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data that’s used to power the surveillance economy. This has not only meant the death of privacy, but has served to undermine personal autonomy, free markets and democracy.

Today’s technologies get their power through their control of data. Data gives technology an unprecedented ability to influence individual behaviour. The economic incentives of companies in the surveillance economy differ so sharply from those of traditional businesses that new data governance rules are needed to contain them and prevent abuses.

While most keen observers were still cautiously digesting Bill C-11, the minister responsible for the legislation was quick to cite the support of business associations that represent the world’s biggest data intermediaries, companies that collect and traffic in data, along with some of the pioneers of surveillance capitalism. It’s little wonder they approved of it so quickly.

Canada’s federal political parties would still be able to predict your personality traits, a behavioural-manipulation technique that undermines personal autonomy and has been banned in Europe. And the massive harvesting of data without your knowledge and consent that is used to create facial recognition databases, such as the Clearview AI database that Canadian police have used, would still be permitted.

It’s hard to tell if the federal government is fully aware of the power of the data economy and the impact it has on the lives of Canadians. Virtue signalling on this subject by policymakers has not resulted in any regulation, or even in the enforcement of existing laws that would help curb the egregious behaviours of the firms that these lawmakers sometimes claim they want to regulate.

Bill C-11 deliberately includes provisions that would allow federal political parties to claim they’re outside the purview of Canada’s privacy laws, so they could continue collecting sensitive personal information about voters — such as income, ethnicity, religious affiliation and political beliefs — without their knowledge or consent, just as other data intermediaries do.

This is troubling because Canada is a democracy — not a corporatocracy — and we need our lawmakers to enact laws to reflect that.

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