04/12/2017 04:18 EDT | Updated 04/13/2017 03:59 EDT

How Weakened Privacy Laws In America Affect Canadians

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Internet users want convenience and privacy. However, more convenience means less privacy and vice versa. In a 2010 Wall Street Journal article, Nicholas Carr wrote that being online means you are quickly losing your ability to understand and control these tradeoffs. The ability to be aware of what information you disclose and what information you keep private is becoming harder. Carr says that incredibly detailed data about our lives is being analyzed from online databases without our knowledge or approval.

The U.S. made two recent changes to privacy laws that affect U.S. residents and non-U.S. persons including Canadians. In January 2017, changes to Privacy Act state that privacy policies of U.S. agencies (e.g. - NSA, FBI) exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act regarding personally identifiable information."

This means that U.S. federal agencies will share more information about non-U.S. persons that may increase the number of Canadians and foreigners being denied entry into the U.S. It may also increase online surveillance of information about certain Canadians and foreigners.


As cited on a Canadian law firm's website, in 2014, the Ontario information and privacy commissioner discovered that mental-health information of some Canadians was accessible to U.S. Customs and Border Protect and the FBI. This led to a Canadian being denied entry to the U.S.

Additionally, Canadians do not have to be in the U.S. for privacy laws to affect them.

About 90 percent of Canadian Internet traffic is routed through the U.S., according to Ronald Deibert, head of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.

While VPNs can block a third party from seeing your Internet traffic, it cannot prevent tracking cookies, which are placed on each user when visiting a website.

According to Open Media, Canadians may have sensitive data shared between Canadian and American agencies like financial status, medical history, sexual orientation, and religious and political beliefs. Exactly what personal information is shared between Canadian and American agencies remains unclear.

In March 2017, the U.S. government repealed a law that forced Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the United States to get permission to share personal customer information like their location data. It allows ISPs to sell customer data to third parties without the customer's knowledge or consent.

According to The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a major online privacy rights organization:

"Companies like Cox, Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, and Verizon will have free rein to hijack your searches, sell your data, and hammer you with unwanted advertisements. Worst yet, consumers will now have to pay a privacy tax by relying on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to safeguard their information."

While Canadian ISPs cannot share customer information without their consent, Canadians regularly travel to the U.S. and use WIFI or cellular data on electronic devices and computers. In cases where they use cellular data or WIFI via American ISPs, their personal information may be accessible. Selling targeted ads to third parties based on a user's search history and visited websites data is how Google and Facebook make money. However, information collected by an ISP is much more detailed than what Facebook and Google collect.

While Americans are at higher risk from changes to U.S. privacy laws, Canadians should take the following precautions to protect their privacy:

1. Install a Virtual Private Network

A VPN protects your digital privacy by encrypting your web browsing information from your Internet Service Provider (ISP). A VPN can be installed on any device or computer. When a VPN is turned on, your device connects to your VPN provider's computer servers. All information is encrypted on your device and your IP address and online behavior is blocked from tracking tools.

VPNs are also helpful when using a public WIFI like a café. Always turn on your VPN when using public WIFI. VPNs, when turned on, do not work on all websites. For example, Netflix can detect VPNs and disallows a customer from streaming content with a VPN.

Two VPN drawbacks are they degrade speed performance and a good VPN costs about US$3-10 per month for use on multiple devices. Two popular VPNs are F-Secure and TunnelBear.

While VPNs can block a third party from seeing your Internet traffic, it cannot prevent tracking cookies, which are placed on each user when visiting a website.

2. Keep track of cookies from companies that track you

While a VPN hides your browsing activity from an ISP, Google, Facebook, Amazon and thousands of others use tracking technologies like cookies. Cookies contain identification tags that track your web browser activity.

In the past, ISPs like Verizon needed to inform customers they are being tracked and give then the option to opt out. In 2016, Verizon was fined $1.35 million because it didn't get permission from customers before sharing tracking information with third party companies. ISPs in the U.S. no longer face penalties. Cookies help provide a complete customer profile picture about their behavior and actions on a company's website. A VPN will not prevent cookies from tracking customers.

3. Install Privacy Badger to block third party tracking

Privacy Badger is a free browser extension for Firefox, Chrome and Opera developed by the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation. It blocks third-party web trackers.


According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

"Third-party tracking happens when advertisers and websites track your browsing activity across the web without your knowledge, control, or consent. It is a widespread practice in online advertising."

After installing the extension, when you visit a website, a number appears over the extension image showing the number of trackers. It is a useful exercise to visit your favorite website and notice the number of third party advertisers tracking your browsing activity.

While it is convenient to access your data anytime and anywhere, it is equally important to protect your privacy and civil liberties. The new privacy laws in the U.S. will take time to understand the ramifications. Canadians would be wise to pay closer attention to their privacy.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog indicated that Facebook sells customer data to third parties.

Facebook makes money by selling ads, and third parties gain no access to data.

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