The Internet, surveillance, and privacy

Information privacy is an important policy and social consideration.

Today, the vast majority of Canadian households have Internet connections. [1] As technologies have improved to allow corporations, law enforcement, and others to gather information and monitor activities online, media reports about violations or breaches of privacy are more and more frequent:

  • The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre reports that over 17,000 Canadians were victims of identity fraud in 2011, with total losses of more than $13 million.
  • While attempting to find evidence in regards to a sexual harassment claim, a Calgary Police security and technical expert illegally accessed a civilian employee’s personal email. [2]
  • Over 12,000 current and former employees at the University of Victoria had their personal information compromised when an unprotected USB key containing their full names, social insurance numbers, and financial information was stolen. [3]

Examples such as these emphasize the need to be concerned with privacy. Beyond simple concerns about invasions of privacy or identity theft, is the value of privacy itself. Privacy is what allows for the free expression of speech, beliefs, and activities. As such, privacy provides the foundation for all of our basic rights and freedoms. [4]

Indeed, more than simply a value or a responsibility, privacy is a basic human right. Privacy is vital for the development and maintenance of dignity, autonomy, civil rights, democratic participation, liberties, and freedom. [5]

The right to privacy applies not only to adults, but also to children and youth. Article 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states:

  1. No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.
  2. The child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Privacy can be thought of something inherently personal, but not in the sense of personal property. Rather, as Luciano Floridi observes, when we talk about “my privacy” or “my personal information”, the meaning of “my” is closer to that invoked in “my body” rather than “my car” or some other tangible possession. [6] Privacy is not something we own; it is something that is intrinsic to us as people.

Individuals' right to privacy has been complicated with the emphasis on security and the numerous developments in surveillance and information technology, particularly since September 11, 2001. [7] Increasingly, individuals are being asked to give up more and more of their privacy in the name of state or national security.

A common theme in discussions of surveillance and privacy is empowerment and the ability to choose which information is available and collected. [8] Concerns, then, are often with the fact that this surveillance or collection of information is frequently done without our knowledge or consent.  

Browsing the Internet, posting on our friends' walls, tweeting, uploading pictures, shopping, and watching videos online all leave traces of data everywhere. On their own, these distinct data elements might not say much, but when put together corporations and law enforcement can use them to track our movements and create a relatively accurate image of who we are and what we do. [9]

Privacy is also important for the development of youth. Without privacy, children and youth’s ideas of self, trust, and authority are affected. [10] Respecting the right to privacy demonstrates trust and allows youth the space to develop a sense of self, including learning about autonomy and trusting relationships.

Youth interviewed as part of MediaSmarts' research project Young Canadians in a Wired World have indicated that they feel most comfortable online when they are given the space to develop their own self and identity – but also know that their parents are there to support them if needed. [11]

The sections that follow outline privacy issues, the surveillance society and techniques of surveillance, strategies for empowering young Canadians without violating their privacy, and the legislation that governs our private information and what third parties can do with it.                         


[1] Statistics Canada. (2011). Canadian Internet Use Survey. The Daily. Accessed 11 May 2012 from
[2] McClure, M. (2012). Calgary police break privacy legislation by snooping through email, copying topless photos. The Calgary Herald. Accessed 14 May 2012 from /Calgary+police+break+privacy+legislation+snooping+through+email+copying/6542302/story.html
[3] CBC News. (2012, March 29). UVic failed in privacy breach commissioner rules. Accessed 14 May 2012 from
[4] Hiranandani, V. (2011). Privacy and security in the digital age: contemporary challenges and future directions. The International Journal of Human Rights, 15(7), 1091-1106.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Floridi, 2005, p. 195. In Floridi, L. (2005). The ontological interpretation of informational privacy. Ethics and Information Technology, 7(4), 185-200.
[7] Hiranandani, 2011.
[8] A Report on the Surveillance Society For the Information Commissioner, by the Surveillance Studies Network Public Discussion Document. (2006). Accessed 7 May 2012 from upload/documents/library/data_protection/practical_application/surveillance_society_public_discussion_document_06.pdf.
[9] McKee, H. A. (2011). Policy matters now and in the future: Net neutrality, corporate data mining, and government surveillance. Computers and Composition, 28, 276-291.
[10] Steeves, V. (2010). Summary of research on youth online privacy. Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
[11]  MediaSmarts. (2012). Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Talking to youth and parents about life online. Ottawa, Ontario.