Big Data is Big Brother

Google, the search engine, has become so indispensable so rapidly that it’s hard to imagine how we ever lived without it. Google has its fingers in almost every corner of the internet, from maps to scanned books, social media to video sharing. If you’ve used the internet in the last four or five years, you’ve used a Google product or looked at a Google ad.

And it’s the ads that are proving problematic when they collide with Canada’s privacy laws.

A Canadian with sleep apnea recently noticed that everywhere he went online, he was seeing ads for devices that help people breathe better at night. Why? Because he’d looked up such devices on one site. Google noted this, and its ads began popping up every time he visited a site that used Google ads.

This is the high-tech equivalent of me looking over your shoulder while you check out a pamphlet on, say, mobility scooters, then sending you daily flyers about scooters, crutches, wheelchair lifts, shower seats, and so on. Medical information is considered sensitive and private in Canada. 

In the case of the man with sleep apnea, the federal privacy commissioner has agreed that his rights were violated, and Google has agreed to back off.

This is a larger issue than a single case, though. Google may be the blue whale of search engines and data collection, but it’s not the only critter in the ecosystem of the internet. There are plenty more, and many of them are harder to trace and less scrupulous. They include everything from the American NSA to our own governments and spy agencies, to a wide variety of profit-seeking corporations, to out-and-out scam artists. Many of them are out to get our money, whether through ads or just theft.

Canada needs to educate its people about their rights and risks online, as well as prepare to be tough about how it enforces privacy rules.

-M.C.

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