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Better ‘surveillance age’ response needed from governments: privacy commissioner

“The potential for misuse is enormous,” Michael McEvoy says of apps
Data privacy and security - Getty Images
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Vigilance is imperative in a world where  governments and corporations increasingly collect and share people’s personal information, B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy said Feb. 5.

He said mass domestic surveillance by the U.S. in the wake of 9-11, Clearview AI’s collection of billions of images for facial recognition uses by police, mall operator Cadillac Fairview’s capturing shoppers’ images and Cambridge Analytica’s compiling of data later used in elections are all examples of overreach.

Moreover, McEvoy told the virtual Victoria Privacy & Security Conference, in a time such as a pandemic, people must be increasingly wary at times of social disruption.

he cited the case of B.C. lifting so-called residency requirements for data at the start at the pandemic. What that means is that data can be stored on servers outside the province. In the pandemic situation, the lifting allowed the province to share health data with foreign organizations to assist in the fight against COVID-19.

McEvoy was consulted on that and said he found the situation reasonable.

The commissioner also touched on the use of contact tracing apps used in many jurisdictions – including in Canada.

“The potential for misuse is enormous,” he said, citing an Australian ban on police “dipping into COVID-related data or Singapore police using tracing app data in criminal investigations.

“These kinds of situations undermine the public trust,” McEvoy said.

McEvoy also cautioned against the burgeoning power of big tech companies such as Facebook which have the power to create societal havoc.

He said millions of people believe the pandemic is a hoax perpetrated by Microsoft’s Bill Gates or billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros. Or, they believe COVID vaccines will implant them with a nanochip to be activated by 5G communications technology.

An irony, McEvoy said, is that some 62% of people surveyed said the joined a Facebook hate group because of a recommendation generated by the platform itself.

He traced the start of the situation back about 15 years. “People did not foresee the damage big information abuse could cause,” he said.

A problem, one that has frustrated privacy commissioners for years, McEvoy said, is the lack of legal power created by governments to do much about the situations.

He said commissioners lack sanction power.

“If this was a medical malpractice case, the harm it caused would be readily foreseeable.”

Another issue, he said, is that big tech companies know no international boundaries, a case which can put them beyond regulators’ reaches.

In one case, he said, Facebook denied it did business in Australia.

IN an ideal world, he said, there would be one global regulator to monitor such companies.

“I expect that is not going to happen,” McEvoy said.

So what solutions are there?

McEvoy said regulators could work together, as his office is with the B.C.’s Office of the Ombudsperson.

Or, he said the giant tech companies could be looked at using anti-trust, anti-competition and anti-trust laws.


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