Cavoukian proposes privacy-sensitive surveillance

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Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian has introduced a policy that she says will allow privacy and counterterrorism surveillance to exist in harmony.

Called Privacy-Protective Surveillance, the policy would allow intelligence agencies to scan information for evidence relating to suspicious terrorist activity, while preserving personal information.

“It isn't pie in the sky to ask people to consider a system where we can accommodate both of these interests," said Cavoukian, who unveiled the concept to Pentagon officials late last month.

A draft paper given to SC Magazine outlines the use of intelligent virtual agents that would be "blind" to irrelevant information, searching only for specific features of interest.

Homomorphic encryption (in which operations can be performed on data without decrypting it) would allow encrypted data to be analysed, the paper said. Law enforcers would then need a warrant to decrypt data flagged by analysts.

 “We did not delve into many of the intricacies required to develop such a Privacy-Protective Surveillance system,” said the paper, co-authored by Khaled El Emam, associate professor at the University of Ottawa's school of IT and engineering.

Academics have said that homomorphic encryption is currently computationally impractical, given the large amounts of computing power necessary.

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