privacy and non-essential services

August 30, 2009

I was recently talking to a privacy-focused person at work and my eyes were opened to the numerous facets of the privacy discussion. I consider myself fairly aware of privacy issues and consistently argue against the storage of irrelevant (but personal) data, the sharing of information between systems without authorization,  or the indefinite storage of any personal data. None of these privacy-breaches is typically done maliciously – it is normally for ease of system development or with the best intentions toward a better customer experience.

I was advocating a mandatory customer card for everyone to assist a small percentage of people who had asked not to be allowed in. My intentions were good and I was doing the right thing (in my opinion). My friend across the table argued against eroding the privacy (and anonymity) of everyone to benefit a few, especially when the benefit is unsubstantiated. I pointed out that this was hardly an essential service – people had a choice not to use our services if their privacy was that important to them even after considering the help that it could provide other customers. I felt that I had a choice in keeping my information private by taking my business elsewhere.

As I sat there arguing my point, it became clear to me that there was much thinking left to do. What is a non-essential service? And, why was I so comfortable drawing that line? Recently, Alberta had to deal with a similar issue with bars keeping information about patrons entering their premises to defend against undesirables. Using my line of thinking, no one needs to go to a bar or nightclub – so they can choose to protect their privacy. But where does it stop? Do we have the right to withhold entertainment from privacy-conscious people as more and more establishments adopt this policy? What about grocery stores? Clothing stores? … Is this a subtle and slow erosion of our rights to freely move within our country?

Seems like I will be giving privacy much thought over the next few weeks. In good news for privacy advocates, Facebook recently agreed to the terms recommended by Canadian Privacy Commissioner to protect users’ privacy. I was always concerned about Facebook for several reasons, but now the responsibility for divulging private information will be more squarely on the users.


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