Dr. Brenda McPhail is the new Acting Executive Director of the Master in Public Policy in Digital Society program. As the former Director of the Privacy, Technology and Surveillance Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Brenda is a long-time participant in a range of policy processes. As a researcher at a national, non-profit legal advocacy organization, her work has supported litigation at courts up to the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as legislative reform, and public education relating to the ways in which privacy rights are at risk in contemporary society.
She has appeared as an expert witness before Parliamentary and Senate committees regarding privacy law, national security, and biometric data, and serves as a member of the Advisory Council for the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. Her current grant-funded research projects include studies on workplace surveillance applications, media governance and AI, and virtual health care data privacy. Brenda received her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto Faculty of Information.
We caught up with Brenda to talk about what led her to this role, what she’s excited about the most, and what she does outside of work.
Tell us about your academic and professional background.
I come to McMaster’s MPP program from civil society. I have been the Director of the Privacy, Technology and Surveillance Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) for almost the last decade, so essentially, I join the program as a practitioner as well as a researcher. At the CCLA, I was actively engaged in a wide range of policy activities using the levers of legal change, legislative change, and public education. I did things like direct pro-bono counsel in legal cases where we needed to defend privacy principles in the face of emerging technology—cases like R. v. Marakah, which established a privacy right in sent text messages. I was also heavily engaged in work focused on legislative reform, and often served as an expert witness before legislative committees studying new laws. My PhD, which I did at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, was broadly in social impacts of technology, with a focus on surveillance and privacy, research interests that I’ve pursued professionally with grant-funded research in areas like workplace surveillance, health information privacy, and AI regulation.
What excites you most about this position?
As someone who has been actively engaged in advocacy to try and ensure we get rights-respecting, forward-thinking and digitally-aware laws and policies in Canada, I’m very aware of how important it is to have people in government and industry who are trained to understand the nature of emerging and evolving technologies and the socio-technical impacts of digital transformation agendas. The MPP program at McMaster is a one-of-a-kind program that is providing the academic and experiential learning necessary for future policy actors to have that understanding. I think it’s genuinely exciting to facilitate that learning journey for the next generation of policy leaders, to help them get the skills they need to have careers that will be great for them individually but also have an impact on the caliber of policy-making in Canada when it comes to all things digital.
Outside of academia, what do you like to do?
I love spending time with my kids (one of whom is graduating from a McMaster undergrad program this year!). I also enjoy hanging out with my pandemic puppy Waffle and my grumpy-looking but sociable kitten Socrates. My guilty pleasure is reading mystery novels, especially police procedurals, which is perhaps an incongruous hobby for someone who studies and critiques surveillance technologies.