Is Funding for Data Privacy Projects Enough to Make a Difference?

By: Lee Rickwood

January 21, 2022

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (OPC) is making some $500,000 available to fund projects relating to privacy issues.

The agency will award up to $50,000 to any single project and a maximum of $100,000 per recipient organization for projects that address key and emerging issues related to privacy. The last day to submit proposals is February 9, 2022.

The goal of the annual OPC Contributions Program initiative is to generate actionable new ideas, approaches and knowledge about privacy. It wants organizations to be able to better safeguard personal information and it wants individual Canadians to be able to make more informed decisions about protecting their privacy.

But the average cost of a data breach in Canada was $6.75 million per incident, according to a new report from IBM Security looking at the 2021 survey year. That’s the highest per incident cost since IBM first included Canada in its survey seven years ago.

So, while the notions that organizations can better safeguard personal information and that Canadians can make more informed decisions to protect their privacy are certainly good rallying cries, the question of whether such funding is equal to the ever-increasing need can be asked: Can $50 K thwart a $6.75 M event?

In 2019, Canadian businesses reported spending a total of $7 billion directly on measures to prevent, detect and recover from cyber security incidents; breach costs have only grown since then and that should leave open the door to greater funding opportunities from joint public-private sector initiatives.

In 2004, the OPC Contributions Program was created to support arm’s length, non-profit research on privacy, further privacy policy development, and promote the protection of personal information in Canada. Approximately $7.5 million has been allocated to more than 170 projects since then.  Pooling available public government funds with even a fraction of the monies spent (or lost) by the private sector could greatly increase the possibilities (ad success) of privacy- oriented project development.

This year’s funding objective revolves around projects that assess who is impacted by privacy risks, and how. Mitigating personal privacy risks, barriers and inequalities follows from that theme, although the OPC says it does not want to limit the scope of submitted projects. Research and public education proposals are also encouraged.

The main qualifier for successful proposals is that they address privacy issues that fall within the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). The act outlines the rules to how private sector organizations in Canada can collect and use the information of individuals. Accordingly, only research and/or related knowledge translation proposals that address privacy issues in the private sector will be considered.

Topics such as artificial intelligence, central bank digital currencies, commercial virtual health care services, surveillance capitalism, digital identity protection, and the right to privacy in terms of individual and collective rights can be considered in that context.

The OPC has posted its 2022-23 Applicant’s Guide with more information on project requirements and how to apply. All proposals must be submitted by February 9, 2022. Projects must be completed within a year (some exceptions apply).

One of the past projects funded through the Contributions Program was the development and delivery of a prototype game about artificial intelligence and privacy.

Called #For You, it was designed to help participants (mostly young people) learn about artificial intelligence, algorithms, online privacy and data security, and to discuss the issues involved at a deeper level.

The game was designed and facilitated at MediaSmarts, a Canadian not-for-profit centre for digital and media literacy.

A comprehensive and insightful report about the findings from the project, Algorithmic Awareness: Conversations with Young Canadians about Artificial Intelligence and Privacy, was written by MediaSmarts’ Research Director Kara Brisson-Boivin and Research and Evaluation Associate Samantha McAleese.

They document how young people felt their privacy was violated by organizations that collect and sell their personal data without their knowledge and meaningful consent, and they have gathered a number of suggested responses or remedies from the young participants in the study.

“Our research shows that young people value their privacy, but often don’t understand how the data economy works or how the information platforms collect about them could affect their future,” Matthew Johnson, Director of Education at MediaSmarts. “They also want a much clearer understanding of the privacy policies they are agreeing to. Helping young Canadians learn more about their privacy rights is essential to preparing them to be active and engaged digital citizens.”

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In related news, with international Data Privacy Day approaching on Friday, January 28, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner will present a free webcast about children and youth in a digital world.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Patricia Kosseim will lead the conversation, entitled Children and Youth in a Digital World: Empowering a New Generation of Digital Citizens.

A panel discussion (with leading education and privacy advocates, including representatives from MediaSmarts among other organizations) will focus on how the privacy and access rights of Ontario’s children and youth can be protected by promoting their digital literacy and digital rights while also holding institutions accountable for protecting the children and youth they serve.

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