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Privacy Enhancing Technologies – A Review of Tools and Techniques

From the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada:

PETs are a category of technologies that have not previously been systematically studied by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC). As a result, there were some gaps in our knowledge of these tools and techniques. In order to begin to address these gaps, a more systematic study of these tools and techniques was undertaken, starting with a (non-exhaustive) review of the general types of privacy enhancing technologies available. This paper presents the results of that review.

While Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) have been around for a long time there are only some which have really taken hold over time, and usually only as a result of there being a commercial incentive for companies to integrate the enhancements.

Some of the failures of PETs to be widely adopted have stemmed from the reasons specific PETs were created (to effectively forestall formal regulatory or legislative action), others because of their complexity (you shouldn’t need a graduate degree to configure your tools properly!), and yet others because the PETs in question were built by researchers and not intended for commercialization.

The OPC’s review of dominant types of PETs is good and probably represents the most current of reviews. But the specific categories of tools, types of risks, and reasons PETs have failed to really take hold have largely been the same for a decade. We need to move beyond research and theory and actually do something soon given that data is leaking faster and further than ever before, and the rate of leakage and dispersal is only increasing.

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Confidentiality in an Era of Patient-Doctor-Cop

From The Canadian Press:

Doctors at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster have complained that local police and RCMP officers are routinely recording conversations without consent between doctors and patients who are considered a suspect in a crime.

“They will be present when we are trying to question the patients and trying to obtain a history of what happened,” said Tony Taylor, an emergency physician who practises at the hospital.

“They have now recently started recording these conversations and often they will do that unannounced, which has a number of implications around confidentiality and consent.”

As far as doctors at Royal Columbian are concerned, the police are getting in the way of patient care.

Patients tend to clam up when police officers are present, Dr. Taylor said. “That makes it difficult to get those kind of history details that are critically important,” he said.

The idea that the police are present, and recording interactions between a doctor and patient, is patently problematic from a procedural fairness perspective. In the past the authorities have lost Charter challenges based on their attempts to exploit Canada’s one-person consent doctrine; I’d be very curious to know the legal basis for their recording persons who may be accused of a crime, in a setting clearly designated as deserving heightened privacy protections, and the extent to which that legal theory holds up under scrutiny.

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The London Tube Is Tracking Riders with Their Phones

From Wired:

An agency like TfL could also use uber-accurate tracking data to send out real-time service updates. “If no passengers are using a particular stairway, it could alert TfL that there’s something wrong with the stairway—a missing step or a scary person,” Kaufman says. (Send emergency services stat.)

The Underground won’t exactly know what it can do with this data until it starts crunching the numbers. That will take a few months. Meanwhile, TfL has set about quelling a mini-privacy panic—if riders don’t want to share data with the agency, Sager Weinstein recommends shutting off your mobile device’s Wi-Fi.

So, on the one hand, they’ll apply norms and biases to ascertain why their data ‘says’ certain things. But to draw these conclusion the London transit authority will collect information from customers and the only way to disable this collection is to reduce the functionality of your device when you’re in a public space. Sounds like a recipe for great consensual collection of data and subsequent data ‘analysis’.

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Privacy and Policing in a Digital World

As the federal government holds public consultations on what changes should be made to Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism legislation passed by the Conservative government, various police agencies such as the RCMP and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police have petitioned to gain new powers to access telephone and internet data. Meanwhile nearly half of Canadians believe they should have the right to complete digital privacy. The Agenda examines the question of how to balance privacy rights with effective policing in the digital realm.

I was part of a panel that discussed some of the powers that the Government of Canada is opening for discussion as part of its National Security consultation, which ends on December 15, 2016. If you want to provide comments to the government, see: https://www.canada.ca/en/services/defence/nationalsecurity/consultation-national-security.html

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The Subtle Ways Your Digital Assistant Might Manipulate You

From Wired:

Amazon’s Echo and Alphabet’s Home cost less than $200 today, and that price will likely drop. So who will pay our butler’s salary, especially as it offers additional services? Advertisers, most likely. Our butler may recommend services and products that further the super-platform’s financial interests, rather than our own interests. By serving its true masters—the platforms—it may distort our view of the market and lead us to services and products that its masters wish to promote.

But the potential harm transcends the search bias issue, which Google is currently defending in Europe. The increase in the super-platform’s economic power can translate into political power. As we increasingly rely on one or two head butlers, the super-platform will learn about our political beliefs and have the power to affect our views and the public debate.

The discussions about algorithmic bias often have an almost science fiction feel to them. But as personal assistant platforms are monetized by platforms by inking deals with advertisers and designing secretive business practices designed to extract value from users, the threat of attitude shaping will become even more important. Why did your assistant recommend a particular route? (Answer: because it took you past businesses the platform owner believes you are predisposed to spend money at.) Why did your assistant present a particular piece of news? (Answer: because the piece in question conformed with your existing views and thus increased time you spent on the site, during which you were exposed to the platform’s associated advertising partners’ content.)

We are shifting to a world where algorithms are functionally what we call magic. A type of magic that can be used to exploit us while we think that algorithmically-designed digital assistants are markedly changing our lives for the better.

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RCMP is overstating Canada’s ‘surveillance lag’ | Toronto Star

From a piece that I wrote with Tamir Israel for the Toronto Star:

The RCMP has been lobbying the government behind the scenes for increased surveillance powers on the faulty premise that their investigative powers are lagging behind those foreign police services.

The centrepiece of the RCMP’s pitch is captured in an infographic that purports to show foreign governments are legislating powers that are more responsive to investigative challenges posed by the digital world. On the basis of this comparison, the RCMP appears to have convinced the federal government to transform a process intended to curb the excesses of Bill C-51 into one dominated by proposals for additional surveillance powers.

The RCMP’s lobbying effort misleadingly leaves an impression that Canadian law enforcement efforts are being confounded by digital activities.

An Op-ed that I published with a colleague of mine, Tamir Israel, earlier this week that calls out the RCMP for deliberately misleading the public with regards to government agencies’ existing surveillance powers and capabilities.

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Pleading the Case: How the RCMP Fails to Justify Calls for New Investigatory Powers

The powers that the government is proposing in its national security consultation — that all communications made by all Canadians be retained regardless of guilt, that all communications be accessible to state agencies on the basis that any Canadian could potentially commit a crime, that security of communications infrastructure should be secondary to government access to communications — are deeply disproportionate to the challenges government agencies are facing. The cases chosen by authorities to be selectively revealed to journalists do not reveal a crisis of policing but that authorities continue to face the ever-present challenges of how to prioritize cases, how to assign resources, and how to pursue investigations to conclusion. Authorities have never had a perfect view into the private lives of citizens and that is likely to continue to be the case, but they presently have a far better view into the lives of most citizens, using existing powers, than ever before in history.

The powers discussed in its consultation, and that the RCMP has implicitly argued for by revealing these cases, presume that all communications in Canada ought to be accessible to government agencies upon their demand. Implementing the powers outlined in the national security consultation would require private businesses to assume significant costs in order to intercept and retain any Canadian’s communications. And such powers would threaten the security of all Canadians — by introducing backdoors into Canada’s communications ecosystem — in order to potentially collect evidence pursuant to a small number of cases, while simultaneously exposing all Canadians to the prospect of criminals or foreign governments exploiting the backdoors the RCMP is implicitly calling for.

While the government routinely frames lawful interception, mandated decryption, and other investigatory powers as principally a ‘privacy-vs-security’ debate, the debate can be framed as one of ‘security-or-less-security’. Do Canadians want to endanger their daily communications and become less secure in their routine activities so that the RCMP and our security services can better intercept data they cannot read, or retain information they cannot process? Or do Canadians want the strongest security possible so that their businesses, personal relationships, religious observations, and other aspects of their daily life are kept safe from third-persons who want to capture and exploit their sensitive and oftentimes confidential information? Do we want to be more safe from cybercriminals, or more likely to be victimized by them by providing powers to government agencies?