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Ordinary citizens part of 'surveillance society': Privacy czar

CanWest News Service | September 24, 2007
Carly Weeks

OTTAWA -- If you think the oppressive hand of Big Brother is the only threat to personal privacy in today's digital society, think again.

Our camera phone-toting friends and strangers in the online universe can be just as responsible for the erosion of the truly private life as the corporations and government agencies that keep tabs on citizens in the name of product sales and national security, warns federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.

"It's not just Big Brother who's akin to a government watching you in the Orwellian dystopia," Ms. Stoddart said in an interview. "We're all little brothers. We're all fascinated with the gadgets that allow you to do this."

The pervasive presence of technology, and its unprecedented capacity to surreptitiously track the lives of others, is one of the issues to be addressed at a major international privacy conference that will be hosted by Ms. Stoddart in Montreal this week.

The conference, expected to draw about 600 public- and private-sector privacy and surveillance experts, will try to peer into an unknown future, where tiny unobtrusive cameras, radio chips, global positioning satellites and online data mining will change the way society operates.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will headline a series of high-profile experts who will discuss a range of privacy issues, including the collection of personal information to fight terrorism, the increasing use of computer chips in household products and appliances, and the online safety of children.

With continued advances in technology, critics are voicing concerns about the risks to personal privacy posed by government no-fly lists, employers that use GPS and hidden cameras to keep track of employees, and data mining that allows companies to target ads to individuals on the basis of their shopping habits.

But Ms. Stoddart says people who complain about the watchful eye of governments and corporations should first take a long look in the mirror.

That's because technology and the Internet are turning ordinary citizens into spies who can post pictures of the neighbours' yards online. Even social networking sites like Facebook, intended to let people tell friends and co-workers what they're up to, can be corrupted by the unwanted circulation of false or malicious postings.

"We're all participating in the surveillance society," Ms. Stoddart said, adding that "knowledge gives us power."

She notes that more people are living alone and turn to technological gadgets to satisfy a craving for human contact.

"There's fewer and fewer of us that live together," Ms. Stoddart said. "This gives us untrammelled liberty and perhaps a good dose of loneliness and we're reaching out to contact other people through technology."

Although new technology brings vast potential for benefit -- protecting public safety, for instance, or curing disease -- there's also a dark side that cannot be ignored.

For experts meeting in Montreal this week, the key challenge will be to exploit the opportunities without compromising personal privacy.

"We all have a role in it we all have to be conscious of what our choices are," Ms. Stoddart said.

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