5Q: Jennifer Stoddart, public defender of Canadian privacy

Jen, Jenni, Jenny or Jennifer. There are roughly 30 people on Facebook who could be Jennifer Stoddart, Canada's privacy commissioner. But without a high-resolution mug shot, a few essential personal details and, above all, a birth date, one can really never know with certainty.

That's a fact the 64-year-old privacy commissioner knows well. Finding that sweet spot between guarding personal intel and giving it up freely is in keeping with the advocacy work she's been doing for the better part of a decade: with so much of our lives online, and business marketers and identity thieves lurking, be wary -- very wary -- of how your personal information is collected and doled out.

The commissioner, whose office is independent from federal government, is known for her feistiness having famously crossed swords with internet giants Google and Facebook over how personal information is handled.

Most recently, the commissioner publicized findings of her office's role in a global Internet privacy sweep of more than 2,000 online policies for companies including Bell Media, Tim Hortons and GlaxoSmithKline. They found some good, bad and ugly.

Stoddart's stint ends in December and she will be passing the torch to a successor who will have to contend with the fact that privacy issues have become hotter than ever, highlighted by the recent media buzz after revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden, who leaked documents about America's National Security Agency's surveillance programs.

Below is an edited and condensed interview with Stoddart.

When did you decide you wanted to get into this field?

Years ago, I was reading an article by an American scholar named Jeffrey Rosen. It was in the Sunday New York Times. He was talking about the implications for people's personal information and privacy and the whole digitalization of written text ... He pointed out how it really was going to change assumptions about what people could expect in terms of the privacy of their writing, the privacy of their thoughts. I remember being very impressed by this article and thinking isn't that an extraordinary development and what an amazing set of issues.

To what extent do average Canadians understand how vulnerable they are when it comes to online privacy issues?

We've done polling on Canadian attitudes and it's consistently shown a great unease about their vulnerability in this new technology world. Whether or not they have the skills, the knowledge to make themselves safe, this has come up over and over again.

We’re increasingly reliant on very public platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. What is the right balance when you consider two stark options: not posting anything about yourself to ensure 100 per cent privacy or staying off social media altogether and risk being left in the dust by a fast-moving digital society?

Social media is part of daily life for many Canadians. Indeed, many members of my own staff – people who care deeply about privacy – are on Facebook and other social networking sites. Our main advice for building a secure online identity is two-fold: First, understand and use privacy settings. We generally recommend that people choose the strictest privacy setting. Second, think carefully before posting anything online. Would you say the same thing, or share the same picture with your colleagues or acquaintances, if you were face-to-face? Also, avoid posting personal information such as your home address, telephone number, and date of birth.

How should people determine if a company has good privacy safeguards or not? Is there something we can immediately check, a litmus test?

If the ordinary person can't understand clearly what kind of personal information the company is taking from you; if they can't read, reasonably easily, the privacy policy; if they can't find information on the site about privacy practices; if they have further questions and there's no place to contact the company, I think they should be wary ... If you can't understand the privacy policy, I'd say that's a bad sign. A very bad sign.

How well does naming and shaming of companies work, and why or why not?

Companies that are positioned very clearly in the marketplace have told us, time and time again, they are very concerned about their reputation. They are concerned about what negative publicity or criticism from our office would do to their bottom line ... However, again, I think we have to go beyond naming and shaming because some companies can be named and shamed, and they just go on and on and get bigger and bigger. So there has to be some kind of deterrent, some of kind of sanction that actually cuts into their profit margin. This is what the European Union is doing. This is what the Federal Trade Commission in United States has been doing for a very long time. It can levy very significant fines. I think this is where Canada needs to go.

What is the one thing you really want to accomplish before you leave?

We've been working on many things. I don't think there's one thing still left to accomplish, but certainly a lot of consolidation is going on so a new commissioner can start with a fresh slate.

Jennifer Kwan

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Jennifer Kwan is a freelance journalist based in Victoria. Her writing has appeared in the Toronto Star, and national outlets ranging from Reuters to The Canadian Press.