Last week I appeared before the Special Committee on Canada-Chinese Relations to testify about the security challenges posed by Chinese infrastructure vendors and communications intermediaries. . I provided oral comments to the committee which were, substantially, a truncated version of the brief I submitted. If so interested, my oral comments are available to download, and what follows in this post is the actual brief which was submitted.
- I am a senior research associate at the Citizen Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. My research explores the intersection of law, policy, and technology, and focuses on issues of national security, data security, and data privacy. I submit these comments in a professional capacity representing my views and those of the Citizen Lab.
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- Successive international efforts to globalize trade and supply chains have led to many products being designed, developed, manufactured, or shipped through China. This has, in part, meant that Chinese companies are regularly involved in the creation and distribution of products that are used in the daily lives of billions of people around the world, including products that are integrated into Canadians’ personal lives and the critical infrastructures on which they depend. The Chinese government’s increasing assertiveness on the international stage and its belligerent behaviours, in tandem with opaque national security laws, have led to questioning in many Western countries of the extent to which products which come from China can be trusted. In particular, two questions are regularly raised: might supply chains be used as diplomatic or trade leverage or, alternately, will products produced in, transited through, or operated from China be used to facilitate government intelligence, attack, or influence operations?
- For decades there have been constant concerns about managing technology products’ supply chains. In recent years, they have focused on telecommunications equipment, such as that produced by ZTE and Huawei, as well as the ways that social media platforms such as WeChat or TikTok could be surreptitiously used to advance the Chinese government’s interests. As a result of these concerns some of Canada’s allies have formally or informally blocked Chinese telecommunications vendors’ equipment from critical infrastructure. In the United States, military personnel are restricted in which mobile devices they can buy on base and they are advised to not use applications like TikTok, and the Trump administration aggressively sought to modify the terms under which Chinese social media platforms were available in the United States marketplace.
- Legislators and some security professionals have worried that ZTE or Huawei products might be deliberately modified to facilitate Chinese intelligence or attack operations, or be drawn into bilateral negotiations or conflicts that could arise with the Chinese government. Further, social media platforms might be used to facilitate surveillance of international users of the applications, or the platforms’ algorithms could be configured to censor content or to conduct imperceptible influence operations.
- Just as there are generalized concerns about supply chains there are also profound worries about the state of computer (in)security. Serious computer vulnerabilities are exposed and exploited on a daily basis. State operators take advantage of vulnerabilities in hardware and software alike to facilitate computer network discovery, exploitation, and attack operations, with operations often divided between formal national security organs, branches of national militaries, and informal state-adjacent (and often criminal) operators. Criminal organizations, similarly, discover and take advantage of vulnerabilities in digital systems to conduct identity theft, steal intellectual property for clients or to sell on black markets, use and monetize vulnerabilities in ransomware campaigns, and otherwise engage in socially deleterious activities.
- In aggregate, issues of supply chain management and computer insecurity raise baseline questions of trust: how can we trust that equipment or platforms have not been deliberately modified or exploited to the detriment of Canadian interests? And given the state of computer insecurity, how can we rely on technologies with distributed and international development and production teams? In the rest of this submission, I expand on specific trust-related concerns and identify ways to engender trust or, at the very least, make it easier to identify when we should in fact be less trusting of equipment or services which are available to Canadians and Canadian organizations.
As mentioned previously, I’ve been conducting research with academics at the University of Victoria to understand the relationship(s) between social networking companies’ data access, retention, and disclosure policies for the past several months. One aspect of our work addresses the concept of jurisdiction: what systems of rules mediate or direct how social media companies collect, retain, use, and disclose subscribers’ personal information? To address this question we have taken up how major social networking companies comply, or not, with some of the most basic facets of Canadian privacy law: the right to request one’s own data from these companies. Our research has been supported by funding provided through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s contributions program. All our research has been conducted independently of the Office and none of our findings necessarily reflect the Commissioner’s positions. As part of our methodology, while we may report on our access requests being stymied, we are not filing complaints with the federal Commissioner’s office.
Colin Bennett first presented a version of this paper, titled “Real and Substantial Connections: Enforcing Canadian Privacy Laws Against American Social Networking Companies” at an Asian Privacy Scholars event and, based on comments and feedback, we have revised that work for a forthcoming conference presentation in Malta. Below is the abstract of the paper, as well as a link to the Social Science Research Network site that is hosting the paper.
Any organization that captures personal data in Canada for processing is deemed to have a “real and substantial connection” to Canada and fall within the jurisdiction of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) and of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. What has been the experience of enforcing Canadian privacy protection law on US-based social networking services? We analyze some of the high-profile enforcement actions by the Privacy Commissioner. We also test compliance through an analysis of the privacy policies of the top 23 SNSs operating in Canada with the use of access to personal information requests. Most of these companies have failed to implement some of the most elementary requirements of data protection law. We conclude that an institutionalization of non-compliance is widespread, explained by the countervailing conceptions of jurisdiction inherent in corporate policy and technical system design.
Download the paper at SSRN
For the past several months I’ve been conducting research with academics at the University of Victoria to understand the relationship(s) between social networking companies’ data access, retention, and disclosure policies. One element of of this research has involved testing whether these networks comply with the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act; do social networks provide subscribers access to their personal data when a subscriber asks? Another element has involved evaluating the privacy policies of major social networks: how do these companies understand access, retention, and disclosure of subscriber data? We’ve also been investigating how law enforcement agencies access, and use, data from social networking companies. This research has been supported by funding provided through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s contributions program. All our research has been conducted independently of the Office and none of our findings necessarily reflect the Commissioner’s positions.
Colin Bennett presented a draft of one of the academic papers emergent from this research, titled “Forgetting, Non-Forgetting and Quasi-Forgetting in Social Networking: Canadian Policy and Corporate Practices.” It was given at the 2013 Computers, Privacy and Data Protection Conference. Below is the abstract of the paper, as well as a link to the Social Science Research Network site that is hosting the paper.
In this paper we analyze some of the practical realities around deleting personal data on social networks with respect to the Canadian regime of privacy protection. We first discuss the extent to which the European right to be forgotten is, and is not, reflected in Canadian privacy law, in regulation, and in the decisions of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. After outlining the limitations of Canadian law we turn to corporate organizational practices. Our analyses of social networking sites’ privacy policies reveal how poorly companies recognize the right to be forgotten in their existing privacy commitments and practices. Next, we turn to Law Enforcement Authorities (LEAs) and how their practices challenge the right because of LEAs’ own capture, processing, and retention of social networking information. We conclude by identifying lessons from the Canadian experience and raising them against the intense transatlantic struggle over the scope of the new Draft Regulation.
Download paper at SSRN (Download from alternate source)
Canadian news routinely highlights the ‘dangers’ that can be associated with social networking companies collecting and storing information about Canadian citizens. Stories and articles regularly discuss how hackers can misuse your personal information, how companies store ‘everything’ about you, and how collected data is disclosed to unscrupulous third parties. While many of these stories are accurate, insofar as they cover specific instances of harm and risky behaviour, they tend to lack an important next step; they rarely explain how Canadians can get educated on data collection, retention, and disclosure processes.
Let’s be honest: any next step has to be reasonable. Expecting Canadians to flee social media en masse and return to letter writing isn’t an acceptable (or, really, an appropriate) response. Similarly, saying “tighten your privacy controls” or “be careful what you post” are of modest value, at best; many Canadians are realizing that tightening their privacy controls does little when the companies can (and do) change their privacy settings without any notice. This post is inspired by a different next step. Rather than being inspired by fear emergent from ‘the sky is falling’ news stories, what if you were inspired by knowledge that you, yourself, gained? In what follows I walk you through how to compel social networking companies to disclose what information they have about you. In the process of filing these requests you’ll learn a lot more about being a member of these social networking services and, based on what you learn, can decide whether you want to change your involvement with particular social media companies.
I start by explaining why Canadians have a legal right to compel companies to disclose and make available the information that they retain about Canadian citizens. I then provide a template letter that you can send to social networking organizations with which you have a preexisting relationship. This template is, in effect, a tool that you can use to compel companies to disclose your personal information. After providing the template I explain the significance of some of the items contained in it. Next, I outline some of the difficulties or challenges you might have in requesting your personal information and a few ways to counteract those problems. Finally, I explain how you can complain if a company does not meet its legal obligation to provide you with a copy of your personal information. By the end of this post, you’ll have everything you need to request your personal information from the social networking services to which you subscribe. Continue reading →
Last year I was invited to submit a brief to the Canadian Parliament’s Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee. For my submission (.pdf), I tried to capture some of of the preliminary research findings that have been derived from social media and surveillance project I’m co-investigating with Colin Bennett. Specifically, the brief focuses on questions of jurisdiction, data retention, and data disclosure in the context of social media use in Canada. The ultimate aim of the submission was to give the committee members insight into the problems that Canadians experience when accessing the records held by social networking companies.
The project, and our research for it, has been funded through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner’s Contributions Program. Anything contained in the brief is not necessarily representative of the Office’s own positions or stances.
In this submission, I highlight some of our analyses of 20 social networking sites’ privacy policies and findings about Canadians’ ability to access their own personal information that social networking sites store. These findings let us understand how the companies running these services understand their legal jurisdictional obligations and the retention of personally identifiable information. Moreover, these discoveries let us ascertain the actual access that Canadians have to profiles that they and the identities that networking services Canadians associate with are developing. Together, these points reveal how social networking companies understand Canadians’ personal information, the conditions of data sharing, and the level of ease with which Canadians can access the information that they themselves contribute to these services. I conclude this submission by suggesting a few ways that could encourage these companies to more significantly comply with Canadian privacy laws.
Download (.pdf) “Social Networking and Canadian Privacy Law: Jurisdiction, Retention, and Disclosure“
The abstract for my presentation, as well as references, have already been made available. I wasn’t aware (or had forgotten) that all the presentations from Social Media Camp Victoria were going to be recorded and put on the web, but thought that others visiting this space might be interested in my talk. The camera is zoomed in on me, which means you miss some of the context provided by slides and references to people in the audience as I was talking. (Having quickly looked/listened to some of what I say, I feel as though I’m adopting a presentation style similar to a few people I watch a lot. Not sure how I think about that…The inability to actually walk around – being tethered to the mic and laptop – was particularly uncomfortable, which comes across in my body language, I think.)
Immediately after my presentation, Kris Constable of PrivaSecTech gives a privacy talk on social media that focuses on the inability to control personal information dissemination. Following his presentation, the two of us take questions from the audience for twenty or thirty minutes.