Jennifer Stoddart (NJC ’67)
Canada’s Past Privacy Commissioner
Blazing a Global Trail for Privacy Protection
Jennifer Stoddart (NJC ’67) was appointed Canada’s Privacy Commissioner by the Governor in Council, effective December 1, 2003, on unanimous resolutions adopted by both the House of Commons and the Senate, for a seven-year term that has seen her take on the Internet giants Facebook and Google, blazing a global trail for privacy protection.
After graduating from Neuchâtel Junior College, Jennifer earned a Master of Arts in History from the Université du Québec à Montréal, and a License in Civil Law from McGill University. Her career has spanned the Federal and Québec public services, including her first job out of law school working for the now-defunct Advisory Council on the Status of Women. She then went on to work for both the Canadian and Québec human rights commissions before becoming President of Québec’s Access to Information Commission.
“One of the interesting things about her was that as an Anglophone from Toronto, she so immersed herself in Québec society,” says David Flaherty, former B.C. Privacy Commissioner. While most English-speaking Canadians at the time looked to the West for a career, Jennifer’s exposure to French, living with a pension family in Neuchâtel, resulted in a move to Québec, where she became a member of the Québec bar and has lived ever since.
“NJC opened my mind to different languages and cultures. I came to really respect and appreciate the values that exist in other cultures,” Jennifer Stoddart (NJC ’67) explains. “Toronto at that time was not as cosmopolitan as it is now, and the contrast back then between Toronto and Europe was mind blowing. It was a fascinating time to be there, a unique time to see Europe, barely 20 years after the end of the Second World War, and there were still a lot of vestiges of that experience around. It was very intense and life shaping. The whole experience helped me feel very much at home in Europe, and to deal with my European colleagues in a more relaxed way.”
Since taking on her role as Privacy Commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart has overseen a number of important investigations, including those concerning the privacy policies and practices of the popular social networking site Facebook and a massive data breach at U.S. retail giant TJX, which owns Winners and HomeSense stores in Canada. The Commissioner also led efforts to help private sector organizations understand their obligations under the Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) in the first years after the legislation came into force. She is working to promote online privacy for young people through the Office’s new website, www.youthprivacy.ca
Attracted by the convenience and fun of on-line social interaction, many people do not realize the risks they are taking if they do not check the privacy settings. In Canada, Jennifer Stoddart has demanded that telecom, financial and retail companies stop tracking or sharing customers’ digital footprints without permission. It’s interesting to note that in the USA, where the head offices of many of these corporations are based, there is no national privacy act or regulator. The persistent Privacy Commissioner from Canada must have caught them by surprise when, in 2008, she launched the world’s first investigation into Facebook’s privacy safeguards. The regulator also slowed Google’s plans to send cars armed with cameras to capture and post images of the country on its Google Street website. “I realized that if we continued only to deal with the paper world we would lose our relevance to Canadians,” Jennifer Stoddart says of her decision to take on Facebook in 2008. “We can’t continue to accept willful disregard or needless disregard of the privacy rights of citizens.”
Her work is demanding and her career has been very much focused on public service, which is sometimes a thankless task. “I guess when it’s all said and done, one of the important things about life is what you’ve contributed, what you’ve done for your society, what you’ve added to it in a positive way,” she says.