Sex, E-mail & Privacy – You Have Privacy Rights For As Long As No One Is Interested


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On November 15, 2012, the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Conference (SOGIC) of the Ontario Bar Association (OBA) held a seminar on “Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity: Managing Personal Privacy and Reputational Risks in an Online Era“. I was invited to participate as a speaker. 

One of my (tongue-in-cheek) messages at the event was that you only have privacy rights for as long as no one is interested in what you are doing. It might be 45 years since the late Rt. Hon. Pierre Trudeau said that the State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, but the continual parade of sex scandals demonstrates the State and the public still considers to what happens between consenting adults to be very interesting and worthy of opinion. Just open any North American daily newspaper this past week.

Certainly, there are numerous criminal and civil protections for privacy in Canada that Canadians and members of the LGBTQ community can rely on for privacy protections depending on the nature of the breach.  These include public and private sector privacy legislation, Criminal Code provisions (interception of private communications, harassing phone calls, spreading false messages and hate speech), the new tort of intrusion upon seclusion, statutory invasion of privacy torts (in some provinces), appropriation of personality, libel and defamation, nuisance and breach of confidence.

However, these remedies all have significant limitations. Private sector privacy legislation has no teeth when dealing with a non-commercial blogger. All of the court-based remedies require seeking vindication in a public forum. For defamation, the facts and photos might be embarrassing but if the defendant can prove they are true or part of responsible journalism or a qualified privilege defence applies, the subject of the facts and photos has no remedy. Even when privacy rights are vindicated, any monetary remedy is relatively small and the publicity and the digitized record of the event giving rise to the intrusion of privacy is likely, at least at the present time, to continue on with a life of its own unless publication of the intrusion was relatively contained and the operators of the site are willing to take the material down.

My colleagues on the panel were very thought-provoking. Here are some of my “take-aways” for further thinking and discussion:

  • There is a gap in privacy protection for employees and job candidates (other than in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec, public sector employees, and employees of federal undertakings). We are principally relying on Human Rights legislation for moral suasion.
  • There is a gap in privacy protection with respect to electoral information gathered by political parties and information collected by elected officials. Can this be justified on the basis of promoting our democratic system of government? Or, do elected officials lose credibility when dealing with private sector privacy mistakes when they have exempted themselves from an obligation to protect the privacy of their constituents?
  • We need to have a serious conversation about the “right to be forgotten”. A right of minors might be a useful starting point. Should an indiscreet photo or a story posted by a minor’s friend when the minor is 16 have an unlimited shelf-life on the Internet, or does this impinge too far on freedom of expression?
  • The time may soon be ripe to recognize a tort of publication of embarrassing private facts based on the U.S. and New Zealand tort. What will it look like? How do we protect robust freedom of expression and at the same time provide individuals with protection from becoming the subject of targeted shaming by groups who do not share the same values as the target?
  • Will the limit of $20,000 for general damages for the tort of intrusion upon seclusion be exceeded in the short-term? Or, will plaintiffs be able to demonstrate successfully to the court that the breach of privacy caused specific economic harm?
  • Is the term “privacy” confusing the issue (except to privacy advocates)? Is the main issue systematic and unwelcome private-sector and public-sector surveillance? In other words, a question of control? Is a necessary ingredient of a free society, in the digital age, one in which individuals have protection from the unauthorized use of information that is public in a nominal sense?

Thank you SOGIC for putting on this timely seminar.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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