Jim Balsillie, Council of Canadian Innovators, left, talks with Colin McKay, Google Canada, as they arrive to appear as witnesses at a Commons privacy and ethics committee in Ottawa on Thursday, May 10, 2018, hearing witnesses on the breach of personal information involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Jim Balsillie warns of ‘surveillance capitalism’ by Facebook and Google

OTTAWA — Lawmakers delving into the Facebook data scandal heard calls Thursday for substantial regulatory upgrades to protect the privacy of Canadians — as well as a warning from Jim Balsillie about the democratic and economic risks posed by foreign companies motivated by “surveillance capitalism.”

Speaking before a parliamentary committee, the former Research in Motion chairman and co-CEO urged MPs to shield citizens by — at a minimum — implementing strict data-privacy rules similar to those to be introduced later this month by the European Union, known as the GDPR.

Balsillie said data-harvesting giants like Facebook and Google are entirely driven by mass surveillance and follow business models that are exploiting gaps in Canada’s governance laws.

“This is going much faster than we understand it and we are cascading towards a surveillance state and … it touches all aspects of our sovereign citizenship, well beyond the economy,” said Balsillie, whose former company created the BlackBerry.

“Surveillance capitalism is the most-powerful market force today, which is why the six most valuable companies are all data-driven.”

The ethics committee has been studying data privacy issues following a scandal that allegedly saw the personal information of some 87 million Facebook users — including more than 620,000 Canadians — improperly accessed for political-campaigning purposes ahead of U.K.’s Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The controversy has put a spotlight on the use of data by political parties, which depend heavily on access to quality information about voters when targeting their campaign pitches.

It’s also motivated policy-makers to scrutinize the collection and use of private data by other players in the industry.

On Thursday, a Google Canada executive, who appeared at the same time as Balsillie, defended the company’s record when it comes to protecting the data of its users.

Colin McKay, head of public policy and government relations, argued that Google has strengthened privacy and data-control tools for its users. McKay also insisted Google only sells advertisements based on the profiles and interests of its users.

“I would like to underline that despite what Mr. Balsillie said, we do not sell the personal information of our users,” said McKay, who noted that selling ads is necessary for Google to offer users its range of services and apps.

“I think that a data strategy does not need to be as restrictive or prescriptive as Mr. Balsillie has suggested….

“Creating a strategy that tries to box Canada in or tries to create obligations that are not either parallel or similar to those available elsewhere in the world will actually limit the opportunities available to Canadians to innovate both in Canada and internationally.”

Balsillie, who represents tech companies as chair of the Council of Canadian Innovators, cautioned that the public must be careful when they hear promises their information won’t be re-sold. The key point, he said, is whether the information is being exploited.

The committee hearings have focused on companies at the heart of the international controversy, including Facebook as well as political consultancies Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ, which is based in Victoria, B.C.

On Thursday, it also heard from U.K. information commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who recommended that her Canadian counterpart, privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien, be given more power to protect private online data from abuse, including when it is used by political parties.

Therrien’s office recently joined forces with British Columbia’s privacy commissioner to investigate Facebook and Canadian company AggregateIQ. They have collaborated with Denham, who once served as B.C.’s privacy commissioner and as Canada’s assistant privacy commissioner.

“The Canadian privacy commissioner’s powers have fallen behind the rest of the world,” Denham, who appeared via video link, said in response to a question from Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.

“Having order-making power, having the ability to levy administrative penalties, civil monetary penalties — but certainly the ability to seize material and to act quickly — I think it’s really important when we’re dealing with global data companies and fast-paced investigations.”

Denham noted that U.K. laws were insufficient for her Facebook-Cambridge Analytica investigation. This week, however, the U.K. government passed legislative amendments to give her office more powers, such as the ability to conduct inspections without notice.

In Canada, Therrien has also been calling for changes.

Among them, he’s recommended that Ottawa ensure privacy laws cover how political parties use the data they hold on citizens. Unlike corporations, political parties are exempt from privacy laws.

B.C. privacy commissioner Michael McEvoy, who also testified before the committee Thursday, pressed the issue in his opening remarks to MPs.

“I would invite you, as my colleague commissioner Therrien has, to subject yourselves to accountability measures for the way in which you collect and use the information of Canadian voters,” McEvoy said.

“A question worth pondering is whether the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal would have happened were it not for the increasing demands of political parties to gather and analyze personal data in the hopes of understanding it and using it to persuade voters.”

Democracy requires that citizens have trust and confidence in the political process, he added.

Later this month, the EU will begin enforcing the General Data Protection Regulation to bolster privacy for citizens. For example, the GDPR will make it easier for people to give and remove consent from firms that use their data.

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