Protecting privacy

Personal information is gold

Companies makes billions from it, governments and criminals go to great lengths to get it, store and analyze it. The real-world consequences for an individual who loses control of that data are identity theft, fraud, blackmail, surveillance and potential threats to personal safety and property.

The value of privacy

Most businesses require some personal information in order to function. As a contractor I have built websites for lawyers, real estate agents, restaurants, fitness companies and artists who rely on me to create information systems that meet their legal obligations.


The fitness company, beyond processing credit cards, has to collect health information about each its members before it can process a membership. The lawyer has to make sure the servers are physically located in Canada so client information is protected by Canadian privacy laws. In both cases attention is given to how personal information is handled, in accordance with the relevant laws. In BC, private businesses are bound by the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA).

 Assumptions:

  1. We all care about privacy.
  2. We all want to do the right thing.

Sometimes what prevents us from doing the right thing is simply not knowing (about technology and/or the relevant laws).

Privacy fundamentals

Two interests at play:

  1. An Individual’s right.
  2. An organization’s need.

An individual owns their data. Organizations use other people’s data. An individual has the right to protect/access/correct his/her personal information. An organization can collect, use or disclose personal information in a reasonable way (so long as it does not impede on an individual’s rights).

What is it?

Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is any “…information that can be used on its own or with other information to identify, contact, or locate single person, or to identify the individual in context.

What is it not?

Privacy and confidentiality are not the same thing. Confidentiality can be considered a means to protect privacy but the two terms can be conflated erroneously.

  • Privacy is a right protected by various laws and is “the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people”.
  • Confidentiality is a privilege and means “intended to be kept secret”.

Personally Identifiable Information must be protected to maintain a sense of privacy for a number of reasons including that it gives context to otherwise meaningless data. For instance, observation of a random string of characters or numbers that make up a password or IP address shouldn’t worry anyone if that’s all that you see, because there is no context. Random numbers/characters affects people only when a connection can be made to an individual — “Oh, that’s so-and-so’s IP address”. The more personally identifiable information someone has, the more context can be established: “So-and-so works at that company, banks at that bank and lives in Townsville.” The balance of power shifts when the profile that can be created about you is used to create context around otherwise arbitrary data. It follows that being able to exercise control over who uses, discloses or stores your personal information is important.

Where does technology play a role in protecting privacy?

  1. Any time personal information is kept in storage
  2. Any time personal information is moved, or in-transit

Familiar examples of storage implementations are email and databases. In-transit considerations are protocols (http), domains (bradpayne.ca), and networks (how you got to this webpage).

PII in Email

Disregarding any content in the email, the personally identifiable information that can be read from message headers are:

  1. Name (could also used to infer gender)
  2. Email address
  3. IP Address of the sender (to infer approximate location, or uniquely identify someone)
  4. The type of software used to send the email (not necessarily personally identifiable information, but can be used to uniquely identify someone)

If there is a signature in the email:

  1. Employment
  2. Education

If there is content in the email, then all bets are off. You have no idea what someone is going to reveal in an email or fill out in an online form.

PII in website analytics

Website analytics can be revealing as well. So much so, that respecting an individual’s right to not be tracked is a feature that can (and should) be implemented. If not, there is all sorts of metadata to uniquely identify someone.

  1. IP address (to infer approximate location)
  2. Browser (including plugins)
  3. Operating System
  4. Screen Resolution
  5. Device
  6. Internet Service Provider
  7. Time of day
  8. Content viewed
  9. What website/search engine you visited prior to the one you’re on now
  10. The keywords you used to get to the site, the keywords you used when searching on the site.

That’s quite a haul of information. If the site you were on also integrated social media buttons or included ads or analytics from advertising companies, what gets given away for free just got a whole lot more lucrative for the company that’s ultimately going to sell your data.

While I recognize the need for private information to be collected, I value an individual’s right to maintain control of the data. A fantastic source of ‘tips, tools and how-to’s for safer online communications’ is the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s ‘Surveillence Self-Defense‘. They are also the creators of the Firefox browser add-on ‘Privacy Badger‘ which blocks unwanted tracking from advertisers. I also like the browser add-on ‘Ghostery‘ which puts you in charge of who tracks you while you browse online.

Brad

Brad Payne is currently the lead developer for the Open Textbook Project whose work focuses on open source software using PHP (LAMP). When not contributing to other developers’ projects on github, he builds his own. Through exploiting API’s and with a penchant for design patterns, he helps BCcampus implement new technologies for post-secondary institutions. Prior to his current position at BCcampus, Brad worked in IT at Camosun College and the BC Ministry of Education.

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