It’s Not Just a Number … The Ease of Data Linkages
I feel the need to raise a growing concern regarding the lack of understanding on a key privacy issue – the ease of data linkages in an ever-increasing online world.
As people share more and more personal information about themselves online through blogs, mobile apps and social networking websites, they need to consider the nature of the information they post, and how their information might be used. It’s unfortunate that most people’s perceptions of their privacy and anonymity online fall far short of reality.
New analytic tools and algorithms now make it possible – not only to link numbers to names – but to also combine information from multiple sources, ultimately creating an accurate profile of a personally identifiable individual – and in the process, to reveal their online activities. We have reached a point where information, not only strongly-identifiable Social Insurance Numbers, but also IP addresses, licence plate numbers, and mobile devices, serve as pointers to personally identifiable information, through an ever-expanding web of data linkages.
Imagine a scenario where your ‘anonymous’ comments on a newspaper website or in an online chat forum could be tracked back to you personally, simply by linking your IP address and browser data across multiple platforms.
In March, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that Leon’s, a furniture retailer, was permitted to collect the licence plate numbers of customers picking up their purchases as it was not considered to be personal information (lacking a direct connection to one individual). The law in Ontario is the exact opposite – licence plate numbers are indeed considered to be personal information, as they may be linked to an identifiable individual through the click of a keystroke. In fact, Alberta is the anomaly – no other jurisdiction in Canada holds a similar view.
In denying leave to appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada missed an excellent opportunity to address this issue, which in my opinion, will be at the heart of future privacy problems.