Survey: Cdns apathetic about online privacy

Alan Heywood, Click Magazine

, Last Updated: 10:30 AM ET

Half (49%) of Canadians believe it is acceptable for the government to monitor email and other online activities of Canadians in some circumstances, according to the results of a new survey released Wednesday by The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (www.CIRA.ca), the organization that manages the .CA Internet domain. When those circumstances include preventing "future terrorist attacks," the number of Canadians who say online surveillance is acceptable jumps to 77%.

Since May of this year, media outlets and stakeholder groups around the world have been consumed by the revelations that the U.S. government monitors the activities of Internet users around the world. The scandal prompted CIRA to poll Canadians for their views on the subject with the help of public opinion research firm Ipsos Reid.

The results are startling enough that CIRA is calling for a national dialogue on the subject.

As recently as January of this year, the Survey of Canadians on Privacy-Related Issues, from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, found that two thirds of Canadians were concerned with protecting their privacy.

CIRA's survey results are especially disturbing given that that unlike with phone taps or the opening of mail, both of which require a warrant, online surveillance often happens without transparent judicial oversight - and yet appear to be raising relatively little concern.

"Trust is the foundation that supports all transactions - social, financial and at the Domain Name System - on the Internet," said Byron Holland, President and CEO of CIRA. "When an uninvited third party is introduced into those transactions it erodes that trust. It erodes all that has enabled the Internet to be the greatest driver of positive social and economic change in centuries."

Canadians' apparent apathy may be rooted in simple ignorance. CIRA's survey found that only 18% of Canadians believe Internet activity is confidential. Four in 10 believe the Canadian government is tracking their Internet activity.

But as the Snowden affair has revealed, all Internet activity that have any touch point in the U.S. may be monitored. Considering that Canadian Internet traffic routinely routes through the U.S., this means that individual Canadians can be as much, or even more under the lens of PRISM as any American, without the benefit of any judicial oversight.

"In the 1970s, outrage with unauthorized mail openings and wiretaps without warrants resulted in the MacDonald Commission, and ultimately the creation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service," added Holland. "Where has this rage gone? Has our moral compass shifted enough in the decades since that we're now okay with governments tracking our every move?"

Prominent Canadians were invited to comment on the findings of CIRA's survey. According to Michael Geist, the Canada research chair in Internet and e-commerce law, "These are discouraging but important results. As much of the world is engaged in a fierce debate over surveillance, Canadian complacency is a major issue."

Geist went on to say, "It speaks to the need for greater public education and awareness of current surveillance activities, oversight programs, and the implications for privacy and freedom of expression for all Canadians."

Mr. David Fewer, Director of CIPPIC, said, ""The poll demonstrates the complexity that underpins surveillance issues. While clearly a majority of people would accept some loss in privacy if it would prevent terrorist attacks, the mass and indiscriminate monitoring of all Canadians' online activities is neither necessary for the foiling of terrorist plots, nor a guarantee of safety."

Speaking about the results of the survey, Cathy Wing, the Co-Executive Director of MediaSmarts said, "That fact that there is so little concern among Canadians about intrusive privacy practices that could impinge democratic freedoms is troubling. It highlights the importance of critical digital literacy skills so all Canadians understand these issues and how to respond as informed citizens."

CIRA believes it is time for a national dialogue on the subject. It is dedicating its Canadian Internet Forum, an online forum for Canadians to discuss the future of the Internet in Canada, to the issue of government and corporate online surveillance. To participate, please visit cif.cira.ca.

To read the entire results of the survey and the survey methodology, click here.

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