A Privacy Advocate for Consumers

Ann Cavoukian, Ontario's information and privacy commissioner, is seeking to serve the interests of consumers—ensuring the responsible use of RFID.
Published: December 7, 2006

I spoke last week at GS1 Canada‘s annual meeting. Before my luncheon address, I had the chance to meet Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner, and I came away very impressed. She is fighting to protect the rights and privacy of consumers, and she realizes that in addition to some potential privacy threats, radio frequency identification also offers many potential benefits to consumers. As such, she is looking to reduce the potential threats while enabling the consumer benefits.

Cavoukian began a dialogue with GS1Canada and EPCglobal Canada in the summer of 2005. Based on those discussions, Cavoukian’s office published guidelines for the use of RFID in June of this year (see Ontario’s Privacy Commission Issues RFID Guidelines). Since then, she has worked to get retailers in Canada to embrace those guidelines, and to try to end some of the fear-mongering that’s been going on.

Commissioner Ann Cavoukian

“When journalists call me up for an interview, I spend the first 15 minutes trying to dispel the myth of ‘spy chips’ and big brother,” she told me last week. “After that, I struggle to try to keep the interviewer interested, because the story isn’t as exciting.”

When I say that fears of RFID are overblown, or argue that RFID will deliver tremendous value to consumers, opponents of RFID immediately dismiss my views because they claim my financial and business interests are tied to the industry. (She’s right, of course, which is one reason I campaign so hard for the responsible use of the technology.)

To put things straight: Cavoukian has no financial interests in RFID and is on the side of consumers. She wants to see privacy protected, so her comments about the fearmongers are credible. She believes, as I do, that the fearmongers are hurting consumer interests, and that consumers and businesses won’t get all the myriad benefits the technology can offer if its opponents succeed in scaring the wits out of people with false or misleading information.

Cavoukian is no lightweight hired by a pro-business government to promote pro-business views. She is the author of two important books on privacy: Who Knows: Safeguarding Your Privacy in a Networked World (1997), written with Don Tapscott (one of the world’s leading authorities on business strategy), and The Privacy Payoff: How Successful Businesses Build Customer Trust (2002), written with Tyler Hamilton, a technology reporter and columnist with the Toronto Star.

It’s easy to look at the world in black and white. Everyone who opposes RFID is a good guy, and everyone who is in favor of it is a selfish, greedy capitalist pig who would sell out consumers to make a buck. Cavoukian is proof that that’s not the case—not by a long shot. She’s a smart consumer advocate who believes the proper use of RFID will deliver benefits to consumers, and that intelligent companies will not do anything to endanger their relationship with consumers. The only real challenge we face is ensuring that the technology is not abused by less responsible businesses or criminal elements.