Privacy issues are more important than ever before, according to a University of Guelph computer science professor.

With Data Privacy Day on Jan. 28, Rozita Dara said people now recognize how much personal information is accessible online and how important it is to protect that information.

Headline-making privacy breaches, including data hacks of credit card information at companies and risqué celebrity photos being distributed online, have made people nervous, said Dara, who studies privacy and data collection.

Although people formerly paid little attention to data collection and protection, she said, “in the past five years, citizens have become more aware of the importance of data privacy and cyber security.”

“Privacy is the one of the core pillars of a democratic society. With the growth of digital technologies, concerns related to data privacy are rapidly increasing: fear of losing social values and freedom.”

She said people are often unaware of the risk of information leaks.

“Data breaches are everyday incidents and we only hear about a few of them. Recent studies reported that 36 per cent of Canadian businesses are affected by cyber-attacks and one million Canadians were affected by the data breaches of federal institutions. There is no well-established data breach notification system to inform citizens of such incidents.”

Dara, who previously worked at the Office of Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, studies gaps between policy, social values and technology along with partners including government, technology companies and privacy advocates.

In one project, she aims to improve privacy for individuals by assessing service providers’ claims about safeguarding personal data.

She is also planning a project with the Upper Grand District School Board where she will lead outreach and events to teach children and youth about digital literacy.

In another program, she plans to develop practical ways to enact individual values and privacy policies and embed them in information technology design.

Dara believes privacy-ensuring software products have a competitive advantage.

“As a consumer, if you come across a service provider that has a formal statement and process for collection, usage and safeguarding of your personal data compared to those who do not, which one would you pick? I think the answer is simple.”

Pointing to the difficulty in balancing protection of society and personal privacy, she said people and governments will continue to struggle with public protection issues.

She said information leaks by Edward Snowden involving widespread surveillance by police and security agencies in the United States have brought this issue to the forefront.

“A growing concern in the past few years is increasing government surveillance, and citizens are now asking how much they should give up their privacy for security.”

Dara said individuals should pay attention to the digital footprints they share online and how this information may be misused.

“Sharing too much could harm digital reputation, job opportunities and their finances. As soon as the personal data becomes available in the borderless world, it is hard to control it,” she said.

“Privacy is a value that we all care about deeply. It is time for us to work together to build a social norm that is part of our interaction with digital technologies.”