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Privacy information basics

Understand the importance of privacy and your legal obligations concerning the use of personal information in research.

The importance of privacy

The term "privacy", which is not defined in British Columbia legislation, has different definitions. To some it means the "right to be let alone". This is the classic definition of privacy provided in 1890 by Louis Brandeis, later a justice of the United States Supreme Court. To others, it means anonymity, while still others believe it means the right to be unobserved. Privacy is certainly a rich concept with several dimensions. It includes the right to control access to your physical space, your body, your thoughts, your communications and your information.

A pernicious yet enduring myth is that privacy matters only to those who have something illegal or wrong to hide. Most of us have nothing to hide, yet still attach great value to our individual privacy. Privacy matters because we all have the right to maintain a private life, separate and apart from our public life. We negotiate our identity in the world and choose to share pieces of ourselves with those we trust.

More than this, the essence of liberty in a democratic society is the right of individuals to autonomy, to be generally free from state and corporate interference in their lives. The freedom of citizens to choose, subject to demonstrably necessary and carefully tailored limits, what information they share with others is one of the fundamental differences between totalitarian states and free society.

Privacy matters, in other words, because it restrains the appetite of governments and law enforcement agencies, but also private sector actors:

People who have no rights of privacy are vulnerable to limitless intrusions by governments, corporations, or anyone else who chooses to interfere in your personal affairs. Imagine a world where government had an unfettered right to demand information from you, or to remove money from your bank account, or even to enter your house. The tragic history of many of the world's countries shows us that a nation denied the right of privacy is invariably denied all other freedoms and rights.2

Privacy matters because our physical and emotional well-being requires it. Imagine going to your doctor, dentist, family counsellor, priest or employee assistance counsellor without any confidence that the information you supplied during those sessions would remain private.

Privacy also matters because our economy depends on it. Imagine going to a bank for a loan, to a lawyer to draw up a will, to a financial planner, to a property management company to rent an apartment, or to the internet to purchase a book online without any guarantees that the information you provided would be respected and kept confidential. As recent years have shown, the costs of fraud, identity theft and other misuse of our personal information are real, substantial and mounting. These losses harm individuals, but they can also harm economic activity and growth. (1)

(1) Loukidelis, D. (2008, March). Submission of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Columbia to the Special Committee to Review the Personal Information Protection Act. Office of the Information and Privacy Officer for British Columbia.