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In the heart of Toronto, Ryerson University embraces its identity as an urban campus, actively engaged in the life of the city. Provost Mohamed Lachemi is pretty clear on the matter: “We want to be an innovative university in dealing with the real problems facing society and engaging themes that are important for Toronto and our community.”

That means a focus on health. Transportation. Energy.

And privacy.

Specifically, the way in which privacy is tied up with big data, “a hot topic with many of our partners,” Lachemi said. In putting together the university’s strategic plan for the next five years, “it became very clear to us that big data is a theme that is common in many sectors,” he said, “health care, financial, transportation, many, many sectors.”

At the same time, Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian just happened to be coming to the end of her 15 years in office.

Conversations ensued, and, on July 1, the Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute that currently lives within the Ted Rogers School of Management will officially become the “Institute for Privacy and Big Data” under Cavoukian’s leadership as executive director.

“It’s an area that’s strategic for us,” said Lachemi, “but there’s also huge demand.”

For her part, Cavoukian admitted she has a lot of loyalty toward the University of Toronto, where she did her grad work and where she chairs the Identity, Privacy and Security Institute. But Ryerson “just made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. They said, ‘We’re opening up a big data institute and we want you to head it up,’” she said.

Further, she feels Ryerson is “very progressive, and they move very quickly. In this day and age, you just have to move so fast.”

If you’re familiar with the Cavoukian oeuvre, you know that moving fast is appealing to her.

She intends to hit the ground running when she starts up at Ryerson next month—setting up partnerships with companies so she can get the institute focused on real-world research; inventorying the big datasets that are out there and looking at what people are doing to protect them, and getting started on technological research to take her Privacy by Design to the next level.

 I think Canada can definitely be an economic leader in privacy. What Ann Cavoukian and others have done has put our country in a leading position at the international level. And I definitely see this institute raising our profile even further. And not just Ryerson, but the country as a whole as a leading country in terms of privacy when we talk about the use of big data. Provost Mohamed Lachemi, Ryerson University

The institute will “encourage the development of innovative research to ensure that privacy can be protected in different ways,” Cavoukian said, “embedding protection in the data itself, for example. So that, as it travels, the necessary permissions are entrenched in the data itself. I’m talking about smart data, which we’re looking to develop big time—artificial intelligence, algorithms, robotics—so that the data will adapt to the situation and build in context that only the individual can bring to bear.”

Lachemi said it’s in this kind of thinking that Ryerson sees so much opportunity.

“I think Canada can definitely be an economic leader in privacy,” he said. “What Ann Cavoukian and others have done has put our country in a leading position at the international level. And I definitely see this institute raising our profile even further. And not just Ryerson, but the country as a whole as a leading country in terms of privacy when we talk about the use of big data.”

Knowing Cavoukian’s personality, the answer may be obvious, but it was worth asking whether she thought she’d be able to maintain such a high profile in the privacy community without the title she’s held for the last 15 years.

“I won’t have the nice title,” she admitted, “but I’ve rarely relied on the big stick. It’s been wonderful to have that, but I’ve always tried to work cooperatively … I’m hoping that my reputation and the good experiences that people have had with me in the past will show them that I’m there to help them. And by helping them, I can help consumers.”

Written By

Sam Pfeifle

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