understanding the importance and impact of anonymity and authentication in a networked society
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Valerie Steeves
Assistant Professor, Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa


e-mail: vsteeves(at)uottawa.ca

ANON: What is the human rights perspective on privacy, as opposed to, for example, a consumer rights perspective?

VAL STEEVES: Consumer privacy typically focuses on informational control. A human rights perspective on privacy encompasses privacy as a social and democratic value, and seeks to protect our sense of dignity and autonomy.

ANON: How does technology clash with the human right to privacy?

VAL STEEVES: It does and it doesn't. It depends on who's programming the technology. It's important to remember that technology isn't neutral; it's the result of a whole series of social choices that are made by the people who create, regulate and use it. When technologies are designed to place people under a constant surveillance loop, and identify them and record their actions, then those technologies invade the sense of privacy that is constructed by real social actors as they go about their business. On the other hand, technologies that promote the free exchange of views in a transparent environment don't necessarily impinge on our sense of privacy because we're still able to negotiate the level of privacy we want through social interaction with other actors.

ANON: What are some of the education and outreach programs have you been involved in?

VAL STEEVES: Private Eyes Project - This project was part of Heritage Canada's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and involved Canadian high school students in a series of exercises that explored the role privacy plays in their daily lives. The project included educational materials that described two possible futures, one in which privacy was respected and another in which technologies were used to monitor and control people's actions.

Industry Canada's Privacy Town - This project was a public education initiative created for Industry Canadam, designed to provide Canadian consumers with information on privacy laws in a number of contexts, including online commerce, health and banking.

Privacy Playground - The First Adventure of the Three Little Cyberpigs – This is a multimedia game I created for the Media Awareness Network, with support from Bell Canada and Industry Canada, to teach young children how to protect their privacy in cyberspace. As the Three Pigs surf the Net for a new clubhouse, they encounter marketers, fraudsters and others seeking to collect their personal information for their own purposes.

Jo Cool or Jo Fool - This is an interactive online educational activity for middle and high school students. The students follow two teenagers as they surf the Net, and identify privacy pitfalls and privacy-protective commercial practices.

ANON: You have appeared as an expert before many bodies, including the Commons and Senate Committees. Do you find policy makers are interested in incorporating privacy norms?

VAL STEEVES: Privacy is an essential element of democratic discourse. MPs are often attuned to the special role that privacy plays in the democratic process. It 's something that their constituents want and demand. The trick is remembering the fact that democracy is not necessarily efficient or secure - that we accept some inefficiencies in order to preserve our sense of freedom. Bureaucratic efficiency and social control are worthy goals, but not if they supplant privacy.

ANON: What would you change about Canadian policy or law in the area of privacy?

VAL STEEVES: I'd like to see the courts address the fact that our reasonable expectations of privacy shrink when new surveillance technologies are embedded into networked environments and accordingly the law should move to a broader test that examines the social meaning of the technology, rather than whether or not it's in common use. In addition, countries where there is some constitutional protection for privacy, like Germany, tend to be the most successful in empowering citizens to challenge privacy-invasive practices in both the public and the private sector. Legislation like Senator Finestone's Privacy Rights Charter would provide a human rights context in which to interpret and implement privacy-specific legislation, like PIPEDA, and invigorate the current debate about the constitutional meaning of privacy under ss. 7, 8 and 15 of the Charter.

ANON: Why do you think that interdisciplinary collaboration is especially important to the study of anonymity?

VAL STEEVES: Anonymity is connected to human identity, and accordingly our understanding of it can be informed by legal, sociological, ethical and historical perspectives. In many ways, the issues surrounding anonymity speak to the kind of society we're building for the future, so we need to look at the issues from a social-democratic perspective that both feeds into and is enriched by public debate.

ANON: What is your research interest in the area of anonymity?

VAL STEEVES: By applying the work of communication theorists like George Herbert Mead and Jurgen Habermas to privacy theory, I hope to get a fuller picture of anonymity as a social and democratic value.


Learn more about Valerie Steeves

 
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