Director, Integrity Policy and Risk Management, Integrity Branch, Service Canada
ANON interviews Ms. Stephanie Perrin
ANON: What were you doing at Zero knowledge, and how does that experience lead to this project?
STEPHANIE PERRIN: One of my main roles was to explain our anonymizing
technology to policy-makers and law-enforcement, who, logically enough,
felt threatened by it. I spoke to the G8 Cybercrime committee, Interpol
and government agencies. I went to privacy conferences and explained
Canada's privacy laws and how they interfaced with technology. The
technology itself did not sell, and part of the reason for that was the
lack of understanding of how privacy and anonymity are under threat.
ANON: What is standing in the way of people understanding the importance of privacy?
STEPHANIE PERRIN: I liken this lack of understanding of privacy and
anonymity to the environment. For years environmentalists have been
telling us about how we contribute to environmental pollution, and how
that pollution is literally killing us and a host of other animals. We
have been made aware of the perils, but have not addressed them. If we
have done little to address environmental damage over the past few
decades, it does not surprise me that we are slow to react to threats
to privacy when information technology is brand new and when it is more
difficult to see the damages. There is a limit to how much change human
beings can absorb.
The hidden nature of the damage is another
reason why we are not quick to address infringements of privacy. The
private sector considers this a victimless issue with no harm and no
damage. It was not until we had statistics on identity theft that
people started to take notice.
ANON: As the research
coordinator, how easy or difficult has your work been in combining
research from the different disciplines?
PERRIN: This is a challenging project because of the different
disciplines and the different avenues of mobilizing knowledge, and the
reward structures in academia. If you are a behavioral scientist,
publishing in a technical journal with Steve Mann does not get you
points. Neither does publishing in newspapers as opposed to a refereed
journal. But it is important to get information out to the public so
newspapers and magazines are a vital method of dissemination if we are
ever going to affect public consciousness. There are also language
differences amongst the different disciplines.
I think it is
interesting that the students on the project understand this and are
jumping in to cross fertilize. One of our doctoral candidates is
bringing a literature review to the first meeting, another is writing a
paper for beginners on the finer points of cryptography. We wonder
whether this “disciplinary gap” is partly a generational thing, so we
will be interested to see what the students make of the problem.
Having worked in the public and private sector, how effectively do you
think these sectors communicate on the topics of anonymity and privacy?
How can this dialogue be improved? What role does the anonymity project
play in this regard?
STEPHANIE PERRIN: Different things
drive the public and private sector. The private sector says "show us
the market and we will build it." There appears to be no demand for
privacy, that is why camera phones have taken off, but privacy friendly
technologies have not. Members of the government want to raise public
awareness about privacy and anonymity but lack the budget. Privacy
Commissioners lack the mandate and funds to raise awareness. The
private sector has no motivation to raise public awareness. If someone
were to develop and market a privacy-enhanced phone though, they would
have an incentive to raise awareness on these issues. In the
meantime…we are locked in a push-pull quagmire.
can the Access To Information user’s guide that you are working on with
CIPPIC, EPIC and IPC (Ontario) be used by citizens and everyday people
interested in privacy advocacy?
STEPHANIE PERRIN: The
ATI user guide speaks to the fundamental problem that people do not
know their rights. We can provide useful tools and inspiration to
people to understand what information they can get from government and
what is happening to their own information.
ANON: How will the privacy landscape change or how has it changed with the coming into force of PIPEDA?
STEPHANIE PERRIN: PIPEDA provides comprehensive rights over your
information at the federal level. It provides an incentive to
provincial governments to pass legislation to protect privacy. Because
of jurisdictional matters, the federal legislation does not cover the
labour market, the NGO sector and other areas under provincial
jurisdiction. PIPEDA places Canada in a league of countries which have
data protection legislation. Being able to request and see information
will create a much greater understanding of how information flows in
this country, and indeed around the world.
this legislation have an affect on the particular issues surrounding
anonymity, identity and authentication in a networked society? What
about the war on terror?
STEPHANIE PERRIN: There isn't
a data protection law on the planet that protects a citizen against
national security concerns. After 9/11, information collected at
Walmart is turned over to Homeland Security. A lot of people say, it
does not affect me so I don’t care. You know the line, “If you have
nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”. This ignores the issues of
accuracy in databases, identity theft, or willful and vicious
disinformation. The fact is that many databases which are being mined
for predictive profiles are just plain not accurate. Most people don’t
care, but they will when they get mistaken for a terrorist. It’s just
like when people ignore allergy issues until they have a child who is
allergic to peanuts. All of a sudden you care whether the airline is
serving peanuts to the person sitting beside them on an airplane.
problem is finding out what is happening. If I am denied entry to the
United States, I know enough to go try to find out what is wrong. If I
do not get a car loan, I know enough to check my credit rating. But if
I pay a high price for insurance, do I know enough to check the
databanks? If I keep failing to get past first base on job
applications, so I know enough to ask for my Choicepoint file? These
are the kinds of insights we hope to put into the Access Guide, because
the person on the street has no clue generally about what could be
Once people understand what is going on, and what the potential for
harm is, we expect they will understand what we are talking about when
we talk about the right to be anonymous, but I expect it to take quite
a while, not to mention a lot of hard work.
Learn more about Stephanie Perrin