How “snooping” harms us all | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

How “snooping” harms us all

The Sobeys pharmacy breach shows why the public needs to prioritize data privacy.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the Sobeys pharmacy manager who found herself in hot water after using a provincial drug database to “snoop” on the medical information of friends, relatives and even her child’s girlfriend. This is just the latest embarrassing privacy failure for the Nova Scotia government, following on from two personal data leaks in April, one stemming from a school registration website and the other from (still unresolved) problems with the province’s freedom of information web portal.

click to enlarge How “snooping” harms us all
Michael Karanicolas is a human rights advocate who works to promote freedom of expression, government transparency and digital rights. You can follow him on Twitter at @M_Karanicolas and @NSRighttoKnow.
Clearly, more needs to be done to safeguard our personal data. The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has called for better auditing and notification procedures in response to the latest case, and there are sure to be a host of recommendations flowing from the web portal leak, once the investigations into what went wrong are completed. But ultimately, if we want the government to take our privacy seriously, we also need to start taking it seriously ourselves. A huge chunk of the digital economy, including some of the world’s biggest companies, are built around the notion that people don’t care about privacy, or at least, they don’t care enough to change their behaviours or sacrifice modern conveniences. The casualness with which many people treat their personal data is mirrored in the behaviour of the “snooping” pharmacist who, despite being extensively trained in the importance of medical confidentiality, treated the patient database “as a social media site where she could check in on friends and family and see what they were up to.” Without excusing her actions, it is interesting to think about her case in the context of the broader erosion of privacy which is happening all around us.

Part of the challenge lies in our difficulty in understanding the trade-offs that come with giving up one’s personal information. It is notoriously difficult to weigh the value of privacy against the more tangible and immediate benefits that come with, say, using a convenient new app. While anyone who has had their identity stolen can attest to the enormous costs and frustrations of resolving the problem, the harm of having one’s personal information accessed by a stranger is far harder to quantify. Often these harms can be systemic and structural, and difficult to conceptualize on an individual basis. Each of the 50 million victims of Cambridge Analytica’s data harvesting scheme would likely find it challenging to express the individual impact that they felt. Collectively, of course, the impacts of potentially helping to sway close elections in favour of Donald Trump and Brexit are far more clear and dramatic.

It’s often said that data is the new oil. Given the importance of this resource, and the unprecedented threats that accompany the massive databases which governments now control, there is an enormous need to ensure that systems are set up to prevent breaches or abuse, and where these safeguards fail there needs to be proper accountability. But the government inevitably takes its cues from the electorate, and it will only prioritize data security if people indicate that they value their privacy. Even if you, personally, don’t feel a strong need for robust privacy protections, we should all understand the importance of having a system where those safeguards exist, just as non-religious folks should still respect the importance of freedom of worship. We all have a structural interest in privacy. We should demand that the government get serious about protecting our data.


Opinionated is a rotating column by Halifax writers featured regularly in The Coast. The views published are those of the author.
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