Defining Privacy
A critical investigation of Canadian political discourse



Canada’s federal privacy legislation does not include a definition or explanation of the word ‘privacy’, yet an understanding of the meaning of ‘privacy’ is essential to understanding how much or how little privacy to expect in terms of the protections afforded within the law. The purpose of this thesis is to uncover the definition of ‘privacy’ in the House of Commons as it is used by Members of Parliament (MPs) by examining the language and context within which the word is used.

To prepare for the text analysis, a comprehensive literature review was conducted, summarizing the two key pieces of federal privacy legislation in Canada: the Privacy Act and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. This review also investigated other related pieces of legislation, government documents, and jurisprudence on the topic of federal privacy protection in Canada.

The text analysis was conducted using the XML transcripts of the House of Commons Debates, commonly known as Hansard, spanning a ten-year period that included all of the proceedings from the 39th to the 41st Parliaments. This period, between 2006 and 2015 inclusive, consisted of the entirety of Right Honourable Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada governance in the House of Commons.

The first stage of text analysis used natural language processing modules in Python to generate frequency counts and concordances with a focus on the word ‘privacy’. Between 2006 and 2015, there was an observable overall increase in the frequency of the word ‘privacy’. The analysis of the concordance data uncovered that ‘privacy’ was commonly used in the phrase ‘privacy rights’, and a further frequency analysis on this phrase uncovered that it was most frequently used in 2014. Another finding from the concordance data was the occurrence of the qualifying phrase ‘law-abiding Canadians’, accompanying both ‘privacy’ and ‘privacy rights’. These two trends–the high frequency of the phrase ‘privacy rights’ in 2014, and the occurrence of the phrase ‘law-abiding Canadians’–formed the basis for the second stage of the text analysis, a Critical Discourse Analysis of a debate that occurred on May 5, 2014.

This specific transcript was selected because it had the highest frequency of the phrase ‘privacy rights’ compared to all the other Sittings in 2014. Through the Critical Discourse Analysis of the debate, based on the methodology of Fairclough, it was determined that MPs do not have a clear understanding of the two core pieces of federal privacy legislation in Canada, nor do they comprehend the relationship between ‘privacy’ and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This was evinced by multiple unrefuted references to a ‘Charter right to privacy’, which is a false characterization of the Charter, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding of what comprises ‘personal information’ in Canadian privacy law, something that is clearly defined in the Privacy Act. Furthermore, the repeated reference to the ‘privacy rights of law-abiding Canadians’ uncovered a strong ideological bias among all MPs that narrowly defines privacy as secrecy, preferencing the protection of privacy afforded to Canadians who abide by the law and marginalizing the protection of privacy afforded to those who don’t.

According to Westin, a broader conceptualization of privacy as anonymity rather than secrecy allows individuals to freely express their thoughts, viewpoints, and political beliefs, without the fear of ridicule, alienation, or punishment (pp.33-34). The narrow definition of privacy held by MPs as a ‘right to secrecy for Canadians who abide by the law’ can have what Solove describes as a ‘chilling effect’ on society as a whole, within which the perceived lack of anonymity has the result of suppressing the autonomy and creativity of all individuals (Solove, p.765).

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