Canada's Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart waits to testify before the Commons privacy committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa October 19, 2010. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
OTTAWA - The federal privacy watchdog is calling it a "shocking" breach of the online privacy of Canadians by some of this country's top brands.
On Tuesday, privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart released the details of a recent probe into how leading businesses have been using - and possibly abusing - the personal data of the registered users of their websites.
Her investigation found that one in four of the unnamed companies was passing on personal information - names, e-mail addresses and postal codes - to third-party sites like advertising and marketing firms.
It was done without the consent or knowledge of the users - possibly in violation of Canada's privacy laws.
"That is what's so shocking," Stoddart said in a phone interview. "It's not just a question of your browser settings, or deleting your cookies, or being careful about what you put online. There's no way people could know about this."
(A cookie is a digital record that allows websites to track your browsing habits.)
Stoddart's office looked at 25 of the most popular sites in Canada run by "familiar brands" operated by large organization, and representing sectors including shopping, classifieds, media and travel services.
"One in four has a major problem, and then another serious number have some issues that we can't explain," she said.
The privacy watchdog noted it's not yet clear whether the sites were selling the information or accidentally leaking it to third parties. For now, she has decided not to name and shame any of the companies involved.
"If I don't get a good explanation or serious remedial measures they're going to take, then I may decide to name those who have not complied," she said, noting she may go so far as to take it to federal court in a bid to get the companies in question to correct the problem.
The government's response to Stoddart's concerns was muted.
"Ensuring trust and confidence through the protection of personal information is essential to the growth of the digital economy," Tory MP Mike Lake said during question period.
"Our government will continue to help protect consumers and businesses from the misuse of their personal information."