While The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) has been playing a key role in educating the public about their privacy rights at airports and border crossings, calling out companies that have deplorable privacy policies, and even providing citizens with a privacy emergency kit, it may also be embellishing some its own research to raise awareness that Canadians are more concerned about their online privacy than they actually are. On April 4, 2013, the OPC posted a news release titled, “Canadians increasingly anxious about privacy in the face of new technology, poll suggests.” The news release opens with a finding that “56%” of Canadians are “not confident that they understand how new technologies affect their privacy.” However, upon inspection of the actual bar chart from Figure 5 of the report (displayed below) one can easily see that only 40% (not 56%) disagree with the statement “I feel confident that I have enough information to know how new technologies might affect my personal privacy.” The other 16% neither agree nor disagree with the statement, which indicates that they have a neutral opinion about the statement. It is categorically misleading to claim neutrality about a statement that can be tacked on to either side of a balanced scale, in this case to show that a majority are not confident about their knowledge of the privacy implications of new technologies. It should also be noted that this misleading finding was cited by Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart’s in May 2013 position paper.
Finally, the study also reports that only 12% of Canadians have been negatively affected by information that has been posted about them online and fully 85% have not. It also reports that 54% have not taken any steps to limit the tracking of their Internet activities. As well, it reports that “only about one in five Canadians have ever actively sought out information about their privacy rights.” However, despite these findings, the OPC titled its news release “Canadians increasingly anxious about privacy in the face of new technology, poll suggests.”
While the extent to which the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada is using scare tactics and embellishing its research to influence public opinion can be debated, this example raises the larger question of whether or not there is actual alarm among citizens over the risks of their information disclosure on the Web. Indeed, the reporting of privacy concerns can be marked by more misinformation and rhetoric, intentionally and unintentionally, than empirically sound insight. As such, the OPC should proceed with greater caution.