…the de-evolution of society?

By Joel McNally

They were no Lone Gunmen, but three distinguished speakers had a lot to say about issues of privacy in our high-tech world.

"Private lives, Public knowledge" was an all-day event that took place at the Engineered Air Theatre in the Centre for the Performing Arts on Fri., Oct. 23. Hosted and recorded by CBC Radio One’s "Ideas," the forum was intended to examine the impact of modern technological advances on the privacy of the public.

"Technological and social change have not made it impossible to define privacy or undermined its importance," said Dr. Dennis McKerlie, one of the three speakers who presented at the forum.

McKerlie is a philosophy professor at the University of Calgary who writes and teaches about moral philosophy. He spoke alongside Dr. Tom Keenan, Dean of Continuing Education at the U of C, and Mary O’Donoghue, senior legal council for the Ontario Information and Privacy Commission. While they each spoke on different topics all three tended to agree that threats to individual privacy exist.

"I argued that people have a right to privacy," McKerlie responded when asked about his approach to the issue. "This basic idea can explain and justify many of the specific restrictions we put on intrusions by the state and other people into our lives."

According to Keenan, some dangers related to the impact of new technology on privacy are underestimated while other threats are overestimated. However, he believes that in some cases technology itself can provide the answers.

O’Donoghue talked about the legal issues of privacy in Canada. She pointed out that Canadians tend not to know the relevant laws. For example, while there is no constitutionally protected right to privacy in Canada, the Supreme Court has upheld that right as being implied by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The majority of people attending the forum believe that the greatest threats to privacy emanate from the state, corporations, employers, and the media.

"People thought new technology and the collection and centralization of information about individuals posed new and dangerous threats to privacy," McKerlie elaborated.

However, he added current events have also had a large impact on the state of discourse about privacy, especially in the wake of the World Trade Center attack and America’s subsequent "War on Terror."

"The right to privacy is not absolute," McKerlie acquiesced in light of the September 11 attacks. "It can conflict with other important values, and sometimes it must be outweighed."

However, not all attacks on privacy are the result of 21st century technologies and tragedies.

"Some pointed out that threats to privacy are not new," said McKerlie of the panel discussion. "Arguably, an individual had even less privacy, in some respects like personal relationships, living in a small town in 19th century Canada."

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