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A Conversation with Frank Work, Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner

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February 3, 2010

Continuing a series of blog posts that I’m calling “A Conversation with…” (the first being A Conversation with Jennifer Stoddart, Privacy Commissioner of Canada), I’m delighted to post the following conversation with Frank Work.

Commissioner Work is as personable as he is professional. I’ve had the pleasure to speak at privacy conferences with Commissioner Work and let’s just say that I’m glad I presented first!  As privacy professionals will know, he’s a plain spoken, intelligent speaker and so his sessions are always a “must attend”.

Thanks to Commissioner Work for agreeing to engage in this online Q & A conversation.  If you’d like to learn more about Frank Work, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta (the “Alberta OIPC”) or the issues raised in this conversation, I’d encourage you to visit the Alberta OIPC’s website.

Q.  Your office has investigated identity theft arising from crystal meth abuse. What’s the link between the two?

A.  A couple of years ago the Edmonton police raided a hang out for meth users.  They found a lot of papers from businesses in the area, which they gave to us.  Cell phone contracts, credit bureau checks, credit card information and so on.  The police told me that meth users, unlike some other substance abusers, are pretty alert when they are high.  They don’t sleep.  They have lots of time to do the kind of detailed work necessary to engineer credit card fraud and identity theft.

Q.  So what can the public do to protect itself from that kind of identity theft?

A.  Individuals should shred bank and credit card statements.  They shouldn’t carry certain ID, like birth certificates, on them. These kinds of foundation documents are very useful for identity theft.  Always report lost or stolen credit cards, but also lost or stolen driver’s licences, birth certificates, and passports.  Check your bank and credit card statements to make sure someone else isn’t using them.  Do a credit bureau reference on yourself maybe once a year.  If your score is lower than you think, find out why.  If your score changes from one year to the next, find out why. Sometimes it can be identity theft (someone using your good name). Sometimes it can be an error on the part of the credit bureau.

The other side of the problem is organizations that have peoples’ info.  They must take proper care of it.  As I said, we have been given credit reports, draft mortgages, cell phone contracts, purchase of goods contracts and bookkeepers files, all thrown away.  These papers all have potential for fraudulent use.  Businesses need to shred this stuff.  Furthermore, for businesses that have customer databases, how well secured is it?  Who on their staff has access to it?  We have had cases where someone in the business is taking the info and using or selling it for fraud and identity theft.

Q.  Alberta’s private sector privacy legislation was recently amended to include mandatory breach notification. How will this impact privacy regulation in, and outside of, Alberta?

A.  It is early days yet.  Hopefully it will make organizations extra careful with personal information.  Will that raise the bar for organizations in other provinces?  Maybe.  If you are going to change your practices here, you might as well change them everywhere.  Possibly more provinces will legislate.  A big piece of the picture will be when the Federal government amends PIPEDA in this regard.  Maybe this will increase pressure to do so.  It will be a challenge to figure out what “a real risk of significant harm” is.  It will be a challenge to figure out in which cases there should be notice given and what kind of notice.

Q.  You’ve worked as a lawyer in different countries around the world. How does Canada’s approach to privacy compare to your experience in other places?

A.  We aren’t perfect but we are way ahead of most other jurisdictions.  The “commissioner” system of enforcement has served us well because we do not have the kind of well funded civil society organizations which can advocate for privacy.  Commissioners can and do advocate.  I mean, I would love to have an ACLU, or and EPIC or an EFF in Canada.  Our civil liberties people, like FIPA in BC do great work with the resources they have but resources are scarce.  We need some rich people to endow some of these groups.  The other thing is that I think, relative to other societies, Canadians have a disposition towards privacy.  We get it to some extent.  I like to think it is because we are, yes, polite, and respectful of other people.  That makes us respect each other’s space.  We must not lose that as the world becomes one big facebook/google culture.  Teach your children well.

Q.  Looking forward, what kind of privacy developments should we watch for in 2010?

A.  Cyber attacks, hacks and other losses will continue.  Governments will continue to bring surveillance technologies to bear every time anything bad happens. I will continue to get judicially reviewed.  I would like to think people will start resisting surveillance and other intrusions into their lives but I don’t see it happening.  Governments like surveillance.  Heck, the public likes surveillance because we are just so bad at risk assessment.  We are scared of everything it seems and we want someone to keep an eye on everything for us.  It will be interesting to see if technology begins to fail us.  For example, what if there is another airplane bombing attempt and the technology doesn’t prevent it?  They bring in new technology.  And that doesn’t prevent the next one (God forbid).  Maybe they run out of technology, although, for the money involved I don’t see that happening.  Someone will come up with a new toy.  Will someone ever say “this technology isn’t doing what we want it to and it is costing us a bundle?”  I think that will be a social shock.