Watchdogs warn COVID-19 apps come with privacy risks to Canadians

Watchdogs warn COVID-19 apps come with privacy risks to Canadians

OTTAWA — Governments that want to use smartphones to trace the movements of Canadians during the COVID-19 crisis should handle personal information with care, privacy watchdogs from across the country warned Thursday in a united call for caution.

Privacy commissioners have been warning of potential risks associated with government COVID-19 apps since provinces started musing about the idea a few weeks ago.

The apps work by keeping a record of when one phone gets close to another, and then alerting users if they’ve come into contact with someone who has a confirmed or presumed case.

Alberta introduced its ABTraceTogether app last week, and New Brunswick, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador are looking at developing their own.

“The choices that our governments make today about how to achieve both public health protection and respect for our fundamental Canadian values, including the right to privacy, will shape the future of our country,” the federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners wrote in a joint statement Thursday.

Federal privacy czar Daniel Therrien said the health crisis calls for some flexibility when it comes to the application of privacy laws, but there is a way to use technology to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus without sacrificing fundamental rights to privacy.

“Everything hinges on design, and appropriate design depends on respect for certain key privacy principles,” Therrien said in a statement Thursday.

Therrien and the other commissioners said that while app developers need to respect Canada’s privacy laws, those laws aren’t always effective in the digital world.

They released a set of guidelines for provinces, urging them to be transparent and accountable about how their apps work and what is being done with users’ personal information.

The commissioners stressed participation should be voluntary and users should provide clear consent to whatever they’re signing up for.

The apps should also be secure to safeguard personal data, which should be destroyed once the crisis is over, they said.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said her team is keeping an eye on the apps in development across the country to see if one could be adopted at the national level, but privacy will be the main concern.

“I think if there are certain tools that are better than others, that’s the kind of knowledge that you want to share,” Tam said at a briefing Wednesday. “Not just whether the application works, but all of the policies that go with it, like privacy, which I think is the most paramount of some of the policy discussions.”

The Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta is already reviewing the app deployed in Alberta, and will be issuing recommendations to the provincial government.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2020.

The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Every Albertan eligible for COVID-19 testing

22 new cases confirmed on Friday

Fast-food restaurants serving up free non-medical masks

Free protection will come in packages of four

Alberta confirms 29 new COVID-19 cases

Of the total 6,955 confirmed cases, 652 are active

VIDEO: Tim Hus performs at Ponoka long-term care facilities

Direct Energy pop-up concerts hope to raise spirits

Trump strikes China over virus, Hong Kong and student visas

Trump strikes China over virus, Hong Kong and student visas

Minneapolis cop who knelt on man’s neck charged with murder

Minneapolis cop who knelt on man’s neck charged with murder

CWB Financial reports Q2 profit down as provisions for credit losses soar

CWB Financial reports Q2 profit down as provisions for credit losses soar

Laurentian Bank Financial Group reports Q2 profit down, cuts quarterly dividend

Laurentian Bank Financial Group reports Q2 profit down, cuts quarterly dividend

COVID cancelled their wedding plans, so they married on a BC mountaintop

Ceremony was live streamed to friends and family around the world

Crude has best month on record in May as prices surge 88 per cent

Crude has best month on record in May as prices surge 88 per cent

‘It is dire:’ Study finds B.C. logging continues on critical caribou habitat

‘It is dire:’ Study finds B.C. logging continues on critical caribou habitat

Hitching a ride: How risky is carpooling during COVID-19 pandemic?

Hitching a ride: How risky is carpooling during COVID-19 pandemic?

Most Read