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Remote work brings privacy issues closer to home


It’s a normal day for Employee X. They message a source on a work laptop through their personal social media account (because there is no work account) and step away to use the washroom without logging out. The fluorescent tube lighting flickers and glints off a newly installed surveillance camera in the shared bullpen. There are rumours of bossware on company devices, that can turn on a camera and microphone without warning, and can track all activity on the device, and nearby devices. The protagonist goes home and logs into the VPN from their personal laptop to finish a couple of work emails.

Subsequently, Employee X is fired for things that they had said and written. Devastated and confused, X grabs their personal phone to message a colleague to try and understand the extent of what the employer knows and how they know it. Their phone has been wiped; everything is gone, even the video of their baby’s first steps. X feels violated. Will they have to go to extreme measures to get their job and their digital life back? What about their privacy and their freedom?

It may sound like a pitch for a new episode of Black Mirror exploring the dark side of privacy-limiting technology, but it’s a combination of several examples of privacy concerns talked about during CWA Canada’s Privacy Forum on March 18.

The opening scenario could have been made more chilling with the current pandemic effects, where we literally, virtually, let employers and populaces into our homes and personal lives by using personal devices out of necessity. Now we’re left wondering if that’s akin to inviting a vampire across the threshold. As the preamble for the online conference said: “Privacy has taken on an entirely new importance when the new office is — no office at all.”

Sean FitzPatrick, a labour and employment lawyer with Cavalluzzo LLP, drove home that Canadians have a reasonable expectation of privacy on their personal devices and legally have not relinquished that right on work devices for personal uses. There are, however, extreme cases of criminality that trump our privacy. He also said that, if we have a camera pointing at us in the workplace, if we want to know if we are being monitored, or if there is software we think is intruding in our lives, to raise the issue with the employer or have the union do it.

Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former information and privacy commissioner, reminded us that privacy is directly linked to personal freedom, and it is something that we have to be vigilant about now, before it is too late. She also warned that we need to see through the rhetoric during emergency incidents, that they are not zero-sum games. In this pandemic, it is not safety OR privacy, it can be both. Her caution applies to digital vaccine passports, and that we not lose control over our own health information.

Harlo Holmes, director of digital security at Freedom of the Press Foundation, acknowledged the burden now on us for protecting our own privacy. She also discussed technologies to protect our sources and gave updates on jurisdictional issues. For example, using What’s App might seem safe, as no one can break end-to-end encrypted messages, except that Australia has legislated a backdoor for law enforcement and other countries may follow.

Kim Trynacity, president of the Canadian Media Guild’s CBC branch, moderated expertly, helping non-techies feel like they weren’t alone in not knowing the jargon and privacy technologies out there. Before this session, I might well have thought that Little Snitch was a rapper (it’s a Mac firewall – on the PC it’s called Glasswire), Wickr was a weaving technique (it’s a secure video conferencing app) and Kim was hoping (jokingly) that Bossware might be from Hugo Boss (it’s mildly terrifying employee tracking software).

CWA Canada President Martin O’Hanlon was the lighthouse in the eye-opening, sometimes technically laden storm, providing quite simple takeaways to sidestep the majority of privacy issues. He recommends O’Hanlon’s variant of Nike’s slogan: “Just [don’t] do it.” Don’t use workplace devices (laptops and phones) nor work emails for personal matters. He suggests compartmentalizing our digital worlds by having personal use devices.

While the Privacy Act covers us in many ways in the workplace and at home, we don’t have to stay up to date on that, or know which of the Orwellian opening examples are legal because CWA Canada has our collective, and Employee X’s, back. O’Hanlon concluded: “You have a union, you pay dues, use your union. Any doubts, questions or concerns, come to us, we’ll fight it for you. You don’t have to do it yourself.”

Nadine Robinson, an award-winning writer, columnist and non-fiction author, is a member of the Canadian Freelance Guild, which is affiliated with CWA Canada. She can be found online @theinkran on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram or reached at the.ink.writer@gmail.com.



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