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Setting a New Standard: Privacy & Web Analytics in Canada

The Canadian federal government released new rules which restrict how closely it monitors Canadians’ behaviors online. As of January 31, 2013, these new regulations will govern the use of data that is gathered when Canadians visit government websites. This represents the first comprehensive guidelines since Ottawa went online almost 20 years ago.

Standard on Privacy & Web Analytics

The regulations are known as the Standard on Privacy and Web Analytics and apply to government institutions using web analytics externally on servers hosted by third parties. It applies to all government institutions including parent Crown corporations and any wholly owned subsidiary of these corporations.

While the new policy came into effect at the end of January, departments have until 2014 to ensure that the contracts they have with third-party groups to analyze government web traffic also comply with the guidelines.

The standard defines web analytics as “the collection, analysis, measurement and reporting of data about web traffic and user visits for purposes of understanding and optimizing web usage.”

Many government institutions use web analytics to obtain information about visitors to their websites for two main purposes:

1)      To better meet the needs of website visitors

2)      To assist in delivering effective online services

Blind Spots

It’s important to note that these new rules don’t cover the data available to the government through social media sites set up by individual departments, which operate beyond the bounds of federal policy.

Among other things, the new rules for tracking visits to government websites prohibit the government from profiling an individual’s online activity by tracking their computer’s internet protocol address. Any use of the IP address to measure website traffic must also make sure the address is rendered anonymous.

According to the Treasury Board, “Canadians live in a world of data. Many individuals do not realize how much information about them is collected by websites and used as a corporate asset.”

The Canadian government is currently looking into ways to complete the data analysis themselves, rather than relying on third-party companies, such as Google.

Data Mining Practices

An emerging issue in the field of online privacy is the regulation of what the private and public sector can do with the amount of data generated online. Data mining has become a lucrative activity, and is most often associated with marketing and research firms scouring the web for user information and trends that can later be transformed into advertising campaigns.

Martin Abrams, president of US-based Centre for Information Policy Leadership, points out that there’s a huge difference between what private companies and governments are able to do with data. “The private sector doesn’t have the power to put people in jail, the private sector doesn’t have the ability to cut off people’s government benefits. The private sector does have the ability to use information to target people who could be unfriendly to governments,” said Abrams.

Although people can choose to change private-sector services if they don’t like the data they have to provide to access them, they don’t have this option when it comes to government-provided services.

According to the Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, “I am concerned that very important privacy considerations are not being addressed in a comprehensive and consistent manner across government.” Stoddart has been regularly raising awareness regarding data mining, but with a focus on the private sector.

Changing Online Presence

The new standard coincides with the government’s changes to its online presence. In a speech last fall, Treasury Board President Tony Clement suggested that the changes would be coming soon. One of the major adjustments would be reducing the number of government websites from 1,500 pages to just six. “This consolidation will focus on putting the needs of citizens first rather than organizing our websites around the structure of government,” said Clement.

However, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association argues that the new changes might not necessarily benefit Canadians. The association obtained a set of documents outlining some measures under consideration in the web renewal project, including centralizing all government information through a single portal that would prioritize content by the most popular.

Summary

This article examines the Canadian government’s new Standard on Privacy and Web Analytics, which came into effect January 31, 2013, though departments have until 2014 to ensure that the contracts they have with third-party groups to analyze government web traffic also comply with the guidelines. These new regulations will govern the use of data that is gathered when Canadians visit government websites. This represents the first comprehensive guidelines since Ottawa went online almost 20 years ago.

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Canada (CIPP/C), a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner (I.A.c.i.1.a.)
  • Managing third parties (II.B.e.)
  • Public sector – authority to collect (III.B.c.i.)
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