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It’s a Gold Star for Privacy Day: Empowering a New Generation of Digital Citizens

Data protection authorities around the world recognize Data Privacy Day every January 28 as a way of raising public awareness about the importance of privacy and data protection rights. In case you missed it, this past Friday the IPC continued its tradition of hosting an annual Privacy Day event, engaging with experts, stakeholders, and the public on important privacy issues of the day through constructive dialogue.

Since the onset of COVID-19, we have become increasingly dependent on the internet to live our daily lives. Our children and youth, in particular, spend much of their waking hours in front of a screen, living a virtual existence that includes going to school, gaming, shopping, and socializing. Even extra-curricular activities like music and dance lessons are all online now. And this digital society is here to stay even post-pandemic — whenever that is, and whatever it may look like.

Research consistently shows that despite their natural curiosity and sense of invincibility, children and youth are not fully aware of how their personal information is actually being collected and used, or by whom. It’s essential therefore that we equip our children and youth with the 21st century skills they need to grow and develop in this new digital society, while asserting their privacy rights with confidence, so they can have a say over where their personal information goes, engage safely online, and develop as good digital citizens.

That’s why for this Privacy Day this year, we chose to focus our discussion on Empowering a New Generation of Digital Citizens. Our webcast was inspired by the IPC’s strategic priority of Children and Youth in a Digital World, the goal of which is to champion the access and privacy rights of Ontario’s children and youth by promoting their digital literacy and the expansion of their digital rights while holding institutions accountable for protecting the children and youth they serve. This is an important topic for me, not only as a regulator, but also as a parent with special appreciation for the challenges that parents of young people face as part of today’s digital existence.

Our assistant commissioner, Eric Ward, moderated an excellent panel of experts, each with unique perspectives on this wide-ranging and complex topic, narrowed down to three broad themes:

  1. How are children and youth experiencing the digital environment and how can we protect and empower them to think critically about their personal information online?
  2. Has the time come to prioritize privacy education as an integral component of digital literacy and citizenship school curricula?
  3. What is the role of laws, regulations and other non-regulatory mechanisms like codes of practice, in protecting and promoting children’s privacy rights?

Our youngest panelist, Keith Baybayon, brought valuable insight and energy to the discussion, not only as a youth, but also as student trustee and president of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association. Keith kick-started the morning’s panel discussion by emphasizing the ubiquitous presence of the internet in young lives, and how youth should be given a decisive voice in any discussion about including digital rights in the school curriculum.

When asked about including privacy education as part of a broader digital literacy school curriculum, Assistant Deputy Minister Yael Ginsler, from the Ministry of Education, spoke about an updated education curriculum that addresses such issues as cyber bullying and online harassment. One of its key features is building critical thinking skills, while enabling teachers to provide relevant information about the privacy risks of our inter-connected world.

Anthony Carabache, of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, emphasized the necessary and important role teachers play in helping students make smart digital and privacy choices. He also spoke of the huge influx of marketing campaigns aimed at educators, encouraging them to use the ‘latest and shiniest’ online educational tools, and the need for the education system to carefully vet vendors of these new technologies to ensure that student privacy is put first.

Dave Meslin, activist and bestselling author of Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up, spoke about the ‘invisible curriculum,’ highlighting the new social patterns and behaviours learned by youth outside the official curriculum, and the need for youth to feel sufficiently empowered to assert their privacy rights, and to voice their concerns, even if that means speaking out against authority.

Jane Bailey, Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa, echoed this theme. Jane spoke about her work with the eQuality Project and what her research has revealed on issues relating to the digital experience of children and youth, particularly among young girls. Their lives flow seamlessly between online and offline and rather than simply telling them how to defend themselves, we must provide them with the tools and opportunities to critique and challenge the data collection practices that affect them.

Matthew Johnson, Director of Education at MediaSmarts, Canada’s centre for digital and media literacy, disavowed any notion that young people don’t care about their privacy. His research shows that when youth are made aware of the privacy issues that affect them, they are motivated to make smarter privacy choices and reclaim control over their personal information. Research shows that parents have by far the biggest influence on children and youth’s digital education, and Matthew provided practical tips on how parents can increase kids’ awareness of the risks and opportunities of the online world, and model good digital practices.

Jacob Ohrvik-Stott, Acting Head of Regulatory Futures from the U.K. Information Commissioner's Office, gave our audience some worldly perspective by discussing their recently released Children’s Information Code that governs online services likely to be accessed by children. He described the stakeholder engagement process that led to the successful development of the code and shared his views of how codes of practice can be a successful tool in the regulatory toolbox for holding organizations accountable for their data practices vis-à-vis children and youth.

The morning was then rounded out by Warren Mar, Assistant Commissioner, Tribunal and Dispute Resolution Services, who summarized key highlights and take-aways of the morning’s discussion.

We take great pride in our Privacy Day events, and this year is no exception. Nearly 1,000 people tuned in to watch the webinar, and according to our post-event survey, 96 per cent of our audience reported that they had a better understanding of the subject matter and that 95 per cent would share what they learned with their co-workers and colleagues.

These kinds of events allow us to stay at the forefront of critical issues affecting access and privacy rights of Ontarians. They bring different voices to the conversation in a manner that is inclusive and accessible to others. They encourage us to look beyond our own mandates and agendas and see perspectives other than our own. And they remind us, that while we may all come from different communities and backgrounds, we often find underlying the dialogue is a common strive for a better society.

The great and inspiring Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.” Last Friday provided us with greater insights on how we can treat our children’s privacy rights with respect, by protecting them from online threats, teaching them to take greater agency over their personal information, and empowering them with the confidence they need to grow and thrive as responsible digital citizens.

If you missed our webcast, I encourage you to watch it and share it with your families, friends and colleagues.

— Patricia


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