Personal Information and the Protection of Privacy 1995


Absolute privacy, except for the individual living alone on an island, has never existed. In the small towns and villages where most people lived before the industrial revolution, there was little or no privacy.(4) The details of one's wealth or health could not be hidden for long from other community members. Indeed, someone seeking privacy from the others might have been looked at with suspicion.

The industrial revolution and the large cities it created changed all that. With theindustrial age, came individualism, anonymity and privacy.(5) More people became more mobile, moving where they could find work. The telephone and radio communications made the limits of time and space less and less relevant. Gradually, the small communities where everyone knew everyone else began to disappear. The state had not yet attained the size, and it did not have the resources or the will, to collect much personal information about its citizens, and what little information there was had not yet acquired a high enough value to trigger the interest of the burgeoning large corporations. Individuals therefore came to enjoy, and to expect, an unprecedented level of privacy.

The same industrial age that allowed privacy to flourish, however, created the means to intrude upon it and eventually threaten to take it away. Progressively, with the introduction of income tax and with the creation of social programs, the state began to collect more and more personal information. The creation of the computer to process all this new information made information useful for new purposes, and it quickly gained in economic value. As workers are being replaced by computer-controlled machines and as new communications technologies have linked together not only the great financial capitals of the world, but also the most remote places on Earth, information and knowledge have gained a new importance in our economies. With computer technology, information can now be compiled, processed, stored, retrieved and communicated at speeds and in quantities unimaginable not long ago.

Widespread concern about privacy and the computerization of personal information first arose in the United States in the 1960s. Over that decade, the public and private sectors made new demands for personal information and tried to establish large computerized data banks. In addition, there were proposals to establish a national data centre that would bring together different types of personal information held by the U.S. government in a central data bank. Throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, congressional hearings, government studies, academic publications and popular books considered the new threats to privacy.

The issue of privacy in an information-based economy first attracted attention in Canada in the early 1970s when the former Department of Communications and the Department of Justice put together a joint Task Force on Privacy and Computers. The study produced by the Task Force warned that computers "may magnify, or at least highlight the problems" all information systems pose to privacy.(6) Today, with solitary mainframe computers having been replaced by powerful personal computers linked in networks, such a warning sounds like an understatement. And as the packaging of information by computers has improved over the years, so has the threat that it could be misused and that information about individuals might be used for purposes not originally intended.(7)

Since that study was published, the issue of privacy has slowly risen in importance as Canadians have realised that the privacy they thought they enjoyed in a post-industrial society is being eroded. In this new economy, information has become a commodity, and the public is calling out for protection and definition of ownership rights. (8)

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