A recent survey by Environics Institute and the Ottawa-based Institute on Governance (IOG) examined Canadians’ perceptions on how the federal government is protecting their personal information. The study found that most Canadians are reasonably confident that the federal government is protecting the personal information it collects about them, and support the idea of sharing that data between government departments to improve service.
Most Canadians also accept government surveillance for national security, considering it “important,” that is until it applies to them. That is when the majority feel government snooping on their phone records and internet activity would be a gross violation of privacy.
The survey found that 9 percent of those asked “strongly agreed” with the notion that the government is “adequately” protecting the personal information it gathers when they fill out their taxes, apply for a passport, cross a border or apply for employment insurance. 48 percent “somewhat” agreed, while 31 percent aren’t very confident and 12 percent say they aren’t at all confident that their privacy is being protected by the government.
According to Karl Salgo, executive director of the IOG’s Public Governance Exchange, the survey highlights the tension between privacy and security that the government must manage as it steps up its digital presence. These contrasting principles of privacy and security are among issues to be wrestled with as the public service rolls out its Blueprint 2020 master plan to overhaul the public service.
“Canadians seem to be saying they recognize the legitimacy of surveillance activity, but at the same time, they are anxious about their own privacy. They recognize it’s necessary, but they don’t want a police state or Big Brother spying on them,” commented Salgo.
This information was culled from a collaboration between Environics Institute and the Ottawa-based IOG. They collected information for the AmericasBarometer study, conducted in 26 countries every two years. Last summer, over 1500 Canadians participated in an online survey. A companion survey of 2000 Canadians was also completed by the IOG and Environics. This survey looked at attitudes regarding governance and public service. The two samples were weighted by region, age and gender to match Canada’s population demographics.
The results of the survey revealed that the majority believe their personal information is well or somewhat protected by the government and at least as safe as information collected by the privacy sector, such as banks, cable companies and health-care providers.
Among the rest, 25 percent believed that the private sector did a better job than the federal government, compared with the 17 percent who put more faith in the government.
Both surveys were completed before the separate attacks on soldiers in Ottawa and Quebec, perpetrated in October. These attacks have led the government to work to expand its powers in order to address threats to national security.
Respondents recognized that surveillance for the purposes of national security is something “the government has to do,” and includes quietly collecting data such as phone records and internet use patterns to protect the public against security threats. One in four respondents believed this is “very important,” while 56 percent considered it “somewhat important.”
This was the dominant view across Canada, but it received stronger support from respondents older than 45 and those on the political right. About 72 percent of those on the political right thought this data would help protect democracy. On the left, only 43 percent believed it was good for democracy.
Overall, the survey found that 62 percent of Canadians thought government surveillance was beneficial to protect democracy, while 38 percent thought it was harmful and actually threatened democracy. According to Keith Neuman, executive director of Environics Institute, Canadians’ concerns about government spying were evident nationwide. The feeling was strongest among those under age 30, those on the political left, those considered well-informed about public affairs, Quebecers and rural residents, all of whom believed it would violate their privacy.
In contrast, the survey also demonstrated that there are many Canadians who are ready to share their personal information between government departments if it improves and speeds up the delivery of services, such as employment insurance, pensions, or veteran benefits. They recognize data-sharing could increase privacy risks, but a substantial 64 percent believed that the benefits outweigh the risks, while 36 percent did not.
This article takes a look at Canadian perceptions regarding the federal government’s privacy protections. While there is wide support for government surveillance, a substantial minority believes that it threatens democracy and privacy rights.
CIPP Exam Preparation
In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Canada (CIPP/C) exam, a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:
- Canadian government and legal system (I.A.a.)
- Enforcement agencies and powers (I.A.c.)
- Canadian privacy laws and practices – public sector (III.)