Social and Political Harm

Our democratic freedoms are rooted in our confidence that our government does not watch our every move. As citizens of a free and democratic society founded on the rule of law and fundamental freedoms such as freedom of thought, belief, association, we have constitutional rights to be free of state intrusion into matters that are essential to our human dignity and self-worth.  All Canadians have a right to the personal autonomy to make inherently private choices free from state interference. (1) These freedoms promote citizen engagement in an open and healthy democracy.

But now, with technology enabling governments to collect and share more information about us all, with the spectre of terrorism being used as an excuse to allow more surveillance on city streets, through the internet and at our borders, citizens lose confidence that our government institutions is prepared to show that it respects these constitutional protections, and political engagement breaks down into cynicism and apathy.

Psychological Harm

Health information, psychiatric conditions, past incidents or choices in our lives, current circumstances, financial information – these are all examples of the types of personal information that an individual would want to protect and keep secure. Awareness of a privacy violation involving such information can cause an individual great psychological harm including a sense of humiliation, anxiety, fear, suspicion, or anger.

Economic Harm and Personal Security

The decisions made by other people about us can change the course of our lives. Carelessness or overzealousness by police, security agencies, social services agencies or others who should protect our personal information and ensure its accuracy can and does result in job loss, discrimination and worse.    False allegations of child abuse were disclosed to a potential employer and a man lost his job and reputation. (2) Inaccurate information about each of Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati, and Muayyed Nureddin was given to U.S. intelligence by the Canadian government. They each were taken to Syrian prisons, accused of being terrorists, and tortured. All have been exonerated.

Inhibition: A Chilling Effect

Individuals who suspect or fear that their personal information may be disclosed to others are less inclined to be open and trusting when they need to be. For example, an individual is not inclined to use e-commerce sites if she believes the security of her financial information is threatened.

But more serious are the less obvious impacts. People might be afraid to get treatment if they thought that their health information may be accessible to others in a province-wide electronic health record. You might think twice about surfing the net and stopping to read controversial material, if you knew that all the websites you visited were tracked. You might more carefully edit your emails if you knew that intelligence agencies use technologies to identify key words in internet traffic and connect them to individuals.


(2) Harrison vs. BC (Information and Privacy Commissioner 2008 BCSC 411).