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Transparency vs Confidentiality

As technology makes it easier to find and share information, I ask myself where the line should be drawn between transparency and confidentiality. And does the line shift depending on the organization or individual involved? It has long been accepted that people in public positions are expected to have more of their personal lives on display. But the popularity of “transparency” in operations, particularly in government, is also gaining ground. I’m not sure that this operational transparency is as expected or popular in the private sector world, but that could be coming too. So I go back to my first question – where should the line be set between operating with transparency and protecting confidential information?

I’ve read a bit (a very small bit) about the concept that if everything in life was open and we lived in glass houses, we would all behave better. It sounds like a simple idea, but I’m really not sure I want my neighbours peering into my life with that level of clarity. One example I read about involved having everyone use clear garbage bags at the curb, rather than bins, because then all of their neighbours will see if they are not recycling.  Ohhh-kay. But maybe they have some really personal stuff that is legitimate garbage but they don’t want the whole neighbourhood to know about it. I know – a pretty strange example but it was top of mind for me, so there you go. (And no, that doesn’t mean I have pretty weird stuff in my garbage, and yes I recycle. Even the stinky green waste stuff.)

Then you have government. There is a whack of media coverage on leaked information and the potential damage. Today’s Globe and Mail coverage noted two sides of the argument in one scenario as follows:

“U.S. officials say posting the military documents put informers’ lives at risk, and that revealing diplomatic cables has made other countries reluctant to deal with American officials. WikiLeaks denies that its postings put any lives at risk and says Washington merely is acting out of embarrassment over the revelations contained in the cables.”

I’m wondering if it’s maybe a bit of both. Not sure how WikiLeaks would be able to make the final determination on whether information has compromised someone’s safety, and not sure that the U.S. government is all that comfortable with some of the information released.

Despite being in communications – or maybe because of it – I’m not convinced that all information is public information, because in many cases it may prevent the right decisions from being made. Or it may risk lives. Or it may simply reveal information about an individual that simply does not need to be revealed to all and sundry. I also think that if organizations run unchecked and without accountability, you see some unscrupulous folks making poor decisions. So I guess I believe there should be a bit of both – transparency and confidentiality – and that there needs to be a clearly defined line between the two.

In Canada, we’ve always taken privacy and confidentiality to heart, and have laws in place to protect that information. So there is definitely a defined line in place. I’m not an expert, so I don’t know if the laws are what they should be, or if improvements could be made (probably). But I figure that just because technology is making it easier to take any and all information and shoot it around the world in seconds,it’s not the best, or the right thing to do. I’m less solid on my position in situations where there has clearly been inappropriate action or illegal behaviours by leaders in governments or other organizations, and having transparency to ensure this is reported seems to provide some accountability. How does this information come to light? So I guess in some ways, I’m still stuck on my first question.

3 Responses to “Transparency vs Confidentiality”

  • Derek:

    Hi Therese
    Just browsing your website 🙂

    For me the largest part of the privacy/confidentiality debate is that legislation has not kept pace with technology. For example, privacy legislation in Canada that states that you have a right to access public records about yourself and correct any errors. So if the RCMP or the CRA has a file on you, you have a legal right to know what’s in it. But there is no such legislation for when a private corporation owns your personal data. Also, there are clear legal lines that governments cannot cross with regard to accessing or copying private information. This is not the case for corporations who own such data — at least any protections might apply have not been really tested in court.
    I think it will take time to work out new social definitions of privacy because of new media. The legal definitions will evolve from that. In the meantime, it’s abit of a free-for all where our antiquated expectations of privacy are ill-suited to a modern technological society.

    Just my 2 cents 😉
    Best, DJ

  • Therese:

    Hi DJ

    I agree – legislation is lagging way behind. In BC, they have a Ministerial Order in place to allow social media use by government as it currently doesn’t sync with privacy law. I also found it interesting when I made the move from private sector to government and learned about the significant difference in the way the two are required to handle and release personal information. As technology opens up all these mechanisms for sharing information, there definitely needs to be a balance to help protect people, without restricting things to the point that we’re choked.

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