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CONFIDENTIALITY FEARS SWAMPING PRIVACY WATCHDOG

46 percent of online users concerned, survey finds.

Source: Toronto Star

Posted on January 17, 2001

      Canada's privacy watchdog is being swamped with calls and has already received four formal requests for investigation just two weeks after new federal privacy legislation came into force.

      A spokesperson from the office of George Radwanski, the country's recently appointed privacy commissioner, said yesterday that inquiries are up about 50 per cent this month as concerned citizens, lawyers, consultants and businesses try to wrap their heads around the controversial new law.

      ``We've been busier than usual,'' said spokesperson Mary Jane Tower. ``We're getting about 140 calls a week. There are three or four complaints that have already been filed.''

      The law gives Canadians more control over how their personal information is collected and used in the private sector, starting with federally regulated companies and firms that move data across provincial and national borders. It also makes businesses more accountable for securing and keeping confidential the information they collect.

      A survey released yesterday by Gallup Canada Inc., commissioned by online billing firm Derivion Canada, found that 46 per cent of active online users are either ``very'' or ``extremely'' concerned about the privacy of their personal data.

      The pollster also found that three in four Canadians don't know how to remove their information from online databases and mailing lists, suggesting that businesses are doing a poor job of empowering consumers and earning their trust.

      ``That's an area companies have to work on,'' said Dushyant Sharma, chairman and chief technology officer of Derivion Canada.

      Echoing the words of privacy advocates throughout North America, Sharma said more organizations have to start thinking of privacy as a good business practice that can offer a competitive advantage in the market. Here's why:

  • The Gallup survey found that four out of 10 people who currently don't conduct Internet transactions would be inclined to pay bills and bank online if they believed their privacy was respected. Nearly 30 per cent said they would be inclined to shop on the Web.

  • About 30 per cent ``strongly agreed'' when asked if they would be more willing to share their personal information with a Web site if it had a privacy policy.

  • More than half of respondents who use the Web to pay bills said they would be willing to provide additional information about themselves - such as age, income and hobbies - if they knew they had the option of deleting that data at a later date or knew that data wouldn't be shared with other companies.

      Sharma said Web site privacy policies and trust mark seals, mixed with clear and easily accessible instructions on how to get off mailing lists or ``opt out'' of information-sharing programs, must be adopted more aggressively if consumer confidence is to be won.

      Some companies, such as Calgary-based online travel site Tripeze.com, are going one step further by developing ``opt in'' policies that give complete power to the customer.

      ``People do business with people they feel comfortable with,'' Sharma said.

      Unfortunately, many Canadian businesses are getting a failing grade. In the two years since the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants launched its WebTrust seal program, fewer than a dozen companies have signed up.

      The program involves a rigorous audit of an organization's security and privacy processes, procedures and infrastructure.

      While firms have been slow to jump aboard, experts said Canada's new privacy legislation will likely spur greater interest in such seals.

      Meanwhile, online firms in Canada have a poor record with their privacy policies. Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, found that about half of Web sites in Canada don't have policies aimed at protecting the privacy of their customers. Robert Gold, a partner with Toronto-based chartered accounting firm Bennett Gold (http://www.BennettGold.ca), said companies that come clean with their privacy practices will win out in the end.

      ``Companies that come out on the street and on the Web with honest and fair privacy policies (will) get the attention from the public,'' he said. It's no wonder the fastest-growing executive position within corporate North America is the chief privacy officer, according to Allan Westin, professor of public law and government at Columbia University, and a leading expert on information privacy.




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