Relative Privacy? - A framework for privacy in public space.

[originally published to, now rolled into this site.]

Shortly after a warning from the privacy commissioner of Canada, Google's global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer said:

"We understand that the expectation of privacy in a public place in Canada is different than in the U.S.,"

And he's right, privacy is different here. Canadians for the most part have an expectation of 'relative privacy' in public space. It's the recognition that while a conversation spoken on a public street is not absolutely private, we still have a reasonable expectation that we are not being eavesdropped upon and our conversations recorded.

We expect that when we navigate through public space, our image will be caught on Video. We know that when we make a phone call some system is listening for key words, and we know that there are eyes in the sky watching us pick out a coffee maker at Wal-Mart. But we don't care because we consider these areas to be relatively private, like a guppy in a school; we believe that no one has the interest to store information about us individually.

But this country is changing, what used to require targeted surveillance and significant effort, now can be collected with drag-net surveillance. Corporations and governments are collecting vast amounts of information with ease and with no rules regarding how that information may be used.

The RCMP in BC for example collects information about where you drive your car. They have no real reason to track you, but they do, because they recognize the value in being able to figure out where someone has been seen for the last 3 months.

This changes relative privacy. When I drive my car I expect that a police officer can identify me; there's a license plate there, and that.s precisely what it's for. I expect that I can be identified, maybe even that I was identified. But I also expect that within a matter of seconds the officer no longer cares about my lawful activities and has moved on to a bigger fish.

But did that officer move on? Did his cruiser tell an RCMP database where I was seen, and did that information just become a part of my profile? Do they have a right to track that information? In fact, they do, they are, and the privacy commissioner isn't doing a thing about it.

So what do we need in Canada, to put into law the Canadian concept that even Google understands; that we expect a relative level of privacy in public space.

The Relative Privacy Act

We need to define the rules by which information can be collected without consent in public and semi-public spaces. When we allow the convenience store to use a video surveillance system, we should require the footage be used for a specific purpose (robbery prevention) and kept for a maximum amount of time (like 72 hours).

In essence we must codify in law what most Canadians believe, that we have a right to the relative privacy of public space. If we can achieve such a framework we will reduce much of the harm that comes from today's data collection.

So what items would I place in a relative privacy act?


  • Video and audio surveillance in public and semi-public space. (ALPR, CCTV)
  • Payment and loyalty cards.
  • Employer identification cards
  • Biometrics, identification and identity verification
  • Vehicle information, like GPS, speed or crash data
  • Social networking and consumer research.

But beyond these general areas, I would also expect the framework to be flexible enough to be easily amended without an act of parliament. The privacy commissioner must, with the co-operation of the provincial commissioners be able to modify any regulation to adapt to new technologies and new challenges to our privacy.

It's time to reclaim public privacy.