Privacy's not dead

Canada's privacy commissioner on how the protection of personal information today starts with taking control

As Can teens escape embarrassment on Facebook? duly noted, it’s indeed very difficult for me or anyone over 30 to truly relate to the reality of today’s tweens, teens and young adults.

After all, I wasn’t raised in a world of texts, tweets, wall postings, status updates and smartphone-shot pictures and videos that can be uploaded and shared with multitudes in under a minute—by you, or of you by someone else. The same goes for most of the people who work in our office. That’s why my Office has done classroom presentations, and engaged a panel of teens from across Canada to advise on our youth outreach efforts. I’m happy to say that we’ve learned a lot.

For example, many see privacy—especially in the online context—as being synonymous with protection and safety. Our youth advisors however, have told us that their peers equate it more with freedom and choice. We make no bones about the fact that nobody can realistically exercise command and control over the actions of others. Instead, at the core of our message on youth privacy is to take control where you can.

Privacy protection starts with each of us. Individuals set their own privacy settings, decide who to follow and “friend,” and decide what they post about themselves and others. One thing that today’s youth face that I, and generations previous thankfully did not, is that they can be followed by their mistakes seemingly for their whole lives. It used to be that one needed to obtain a criminal record to earn such standing. Today, social media provides a veritable running record.

But while everyone needs to live in recognition of this reality, people don’t need to be imprisoned by it. Said another way, just because society is confronted by a new reality, it doesn’t mean people can’t adapt. And facts tell me that this process is underway.

Recent research our Office commissioned found rather unsurprisingly, that in general, the younger the user, the more likely and more often they use new communication technologies. However, the same survey also revealed that the younger the user, the more likely they have taken steps to protect privacy when using these new technologies, such as adjusting settings to limit sharing or increasing privacy settings on social networking sites. Now it’s hard to base any conclusions on one statistic, but I certainly wouldn’t read that and come anywhere near concluding that youth don’t care about privacy.

All this to say, when it comes to the dawn of social media, today’s youth are quintessentially pioneers. They’re living in a new environment and the first to be veritably raised on a new, virtual landscape. Uncharted terrain can bring challenge and hardship, but also breeds resilience and adaptation. And based on the conversations we’ve had with youth, I’m not drawn to conclude that privacy is anywhere near dying. Instead, it’s adapting to the challenges of new technology and thereby taking on new life.

Jennifer Stoddart is the Privacy Commissioner of Canada

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