Bernier is a prominent Canadian privacy expert and lawyer and a respected authority on the intersection of technology, law, and policy. With over 20 years experience in the field of privacy and cybersecurity, she says that she was initially drawn to law because of her “profound personal commitment to human rights.”
“Focusing on the right to privacy [is] focusing on a very central societal issue. Privacy is the human right that most requires redefinition right now. With the advent of technology, the capacity to collect information has increased exponentially which greatly elevates the risk of invasion of our privacy.”
Since graduating from law at Université de Sherbrooke in 1977, Bernier has leant her expertise to various public-interest positions, where privacy, safety and equity have been a particular focus. Much has changed in terms of technological advancements, but Bernier’s commitment to privacy and the right to self-determination remains steadfast.
Privacy regulation on technology, particularly in AI (artificial intelligence), is burgeoning quickly due to the inherent risks to people’s privacy. Bernier points to Bill C-27, and the associated Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (AIDA), as evidence of this.
“Legislation needs to be principle-based and tech-neutral. The rule has to be that nobody is allowed to develop or share sensitive personal information without the expressed consent of the individual. In this way, the law applies to any technology and is evergreen.”
Beyond cybersecurity risks, another significant ethical threat with AI, she says, is discrimination and lack of equity. Women and other marginalized groups are underrepresented and undervalued in the tech sector. Consequently, the development and deployment of AI and other technologies are inherently biased to the exclusion of these groups, she says. To avoid biased outputs, Bernier says “it is imperative that … data elements do not lead to a biased computation. AND, once in use, AI programs need to be monitored to ensure that groups are not under or overrepresented.”
Further, though gender discrimination in technology has been a pervasive problem for decades, it has been amplified by the advent of AI and the growing role that technology plays in our lives.Bernier says that women and marginalized groups are disproportionately at higher risk of experiencing cyber-threats, harassment and stalking. And because technology extends the reach and protects the anonymity of the offender, while also creating new avenues and forms of abusive behaviour, “technological abuse can be perpetrated more quickly and can target a greater number of victims.”
Bernier says “technology is too complex, and the capacity is too great, for us to control it. We need strong regulations to mediate. We need transparency to inform and educate individuals. And we need regulation to very clearly define what is allowed and not allowed.”
However, technology also presents new opportunities. For example, the My Safetipin app is a personal safety app developed in India that helps women identify the safest areas and means for transport. In Afghanistan, women are circumventing the education ban through virtual learning thanks to university professors from around the world who have volunteered to teach them online. In 2021, a young woman was rescued in the US after using the “Signal for Help”, a series of gestures she learned on TikTok, to alert drivers passing her, in her abductor’s car, that she was in danger.
In her new role as Privacy Practitioner-in-Residence, Bernier will be sharing her knowledge and insights with students, faculty, and the broader community. Her appointment at uOttawa reflects the university's commitment to staying at the forefront of these rapidly evolving fields, and to providing students with access to the best possible expertise and resources.
Join her on April 5, for her first discussion in this new role: Data for Good: Redefining the boundaries of privacy and the public interest.