The Internet, surveillance, and privacy

Information privacy is an important policy and social consideration.

Canada is a highly connected country: 96 percent of us have access to the internet.[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.

But what does the word “privacy” mean in our networked age? A 2020 report that surveyed 41 people across different sectors of the public found three common themes: that privacy is “the ability to control an individuals’ personal information”; that privacy is conceptualized in terms of risks and benefits; and that “privacy leads to fairness,” suggesting the need to find “a better system to distribute power and benefits of data collection and usage to those who the data was originally derived from.”[2]

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.[3] Privacy scholars Danielle Citron and Daniel Solove have identified more than a dozen ways that privacy violations can cause harm, including:

  • Physical harms, such as providing the means for stalkers or abusers to track a person’s location;
  • Economic harms, such as identity theft or a lack of opportunity due to not seeing a targeted ad for a job opening;
  • Reputational harms, by spreading intimate or embarrassing content;
  • Emotional harms, including fear, annoyance and frustration;
  • Relationship harms, due to a loss of confidentiality or trust;
  • Chilling effect harms, as people may censor themselves in the knowledge that they are being surveilled;
  • Discrimination harms, as people’s personal information may be used to limit their opportunities;
  • Informed choice harms, as people’s data profiles are used to make decisions about them without their knowledge, recourse or consent; and
  • Autonomy harms, in which people’s freedom of choice is limited due to some or all of the effects listed above, among others.[4]

Privacy is also important for the development of youth. Without privacy, children and teens’ ideas of self, trust and authority can be distorted.[5] Young people interviewed in MediaSmarts’ Young Canadians in a Wireless World project identified a lack of privacy as the biggest barrier to becoming resilient to digital risk, as well as a pressure that kept them from participating as their authentic selves online.[6] Respecting the right to privacy, on the other hand, demonstrates trust and allows youth the space to develop a sense of self, including learning about autonomy and trusting relationships.

Individuals’ right to privacy has been complicated with the emphasis on security and the numerous developments in surveillance and information technology.[7] The networked nature of digital technology has allowed corporations to develop a business model, sometimes referred to as “surveillance capitalism,”[8] based on collecting users’ data – both data we provide knowingly and data whose collection happens behind the scenes and is obscured by lengthy and unreadable privacy policies. Browsing the internet, posting on Instagram, sharing a TikTok video, shopping and watching YouTube online all provide data which can be used by machine learning algorithms to customize everything from what ads we see to what prices we’re offered. As a result, more than half of Canadians do not trust social media to keep their personal information secure, while four in 10 do not trust smart speakers to do so and one in three do not trust AI technologies.[9]

The sections that follow outline privacy issues, the surveillance society, artificial intelligence, techniques of surveillance, how youth interact with privacy, 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] Petrosyan, A. (2024). « Number of internet users in Canada from 2013 to 2024 ». Statista. Retrieved from

[2] Chung, A et al. (2020). Project Let’s Talk Privacy: Full Report. MIT Media Lab. Retrieved from

[3] 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.

[4] Citron, D. K., & Solove, D. J. (2022). Privacy harms. BUL Rev., 102, 793.

[5] Steeves, V. (2010). Summary of research on youth online privacy. Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

[6] McAleese, S, Johnson, M & Ladouceur, M (2020). “Young Canadians Speak Out: A Qualitative Research Project on Privacy and Consent.” MediaSmarts. Ottawa.

[7] Hiranandani (2011).

[8] Zuboff, S. (2015). Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization. Journal of information technology, 30(1), 75-89.

[9] Statistics Canada. (2022) Canadian internet Use Survey.