Canadian officials eye digital contact tracing amid surveillance, privacy concerns
TORONTO -- Canadian officials are turning their attention to digital contact tracing to prevent the spread of coronavirus, a strategy experts warn may come with significant privacy concerns.
Officials in Newfoundland and Labrador are the latest in Canada to suggest the use of voluntary contact tracing apps that would use cellphone data to monitor people’s movements and warn them of any contact with COVID-19 positive patients, eliminating an arduous task usually performed manually by public health departments.
Citing examples from Singapore and South Korea -- two countries actively engaged in digital contact tracing -- officials suggest the use of these apps could slow transmission rates, providing 60 per cent or more of the population agrees to participate.
But experts warn important privacy measures need to be taken into consideration to ensure these apps aren’t used maliciously or to surveil citizens.
“Contact tracing should not identify any of the parties involved. Not the parties who are engaging in the contact tracing to determine if they've been exposed, and not the individuals who wish to self-report that they’re COVID-19 positive,” former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian told CTVNews.ca by phone.
“Because it will be Orwellian if it collects identifiable data -- if it can trace you right back to the individual.”
Although Cavoukian says digital contact tracing -- if done responsibly -- could be a “beacon of hope” in curbing the pandemic, she warns that not all apps are created equal.
Many governments, including France, Switzerland, Italy and Britain, are working on their own versions of virus-tracking apps and other technology.
On Monday, the Australian government launched its own version based on Singapore's TraceTogether software, which has been in use since March. Australian officials say that the voluntary app is designed with the privacy of users in mind and will not track users’ locations.
Alberta public health officials have also teased a new mobile app, which is still a few weeks away from public release, that will allow Albertans to opt in to contact tracing.
But Cavoukian says she is wary of the framework included in these apps.
“I am very concerned that governments are going to want to impose solutions that are not, in fact, privacy protected. I think they would like to be able to trace people and identify them,” she said.
“My concern with other technology is we won’t know the level of privacy or lack thereof… they aren’t going to give us the access to look under the hood and we need that kind of transparency.”
Cavoukian, a vocal privacy advocate, says governments should direct their attention to open source software being developed by Google and Apple.
The software, which will be added to the operating systems of both companies’ devices, will harness short-range Bluetooth signals that Cavoukian says protect privacy far better than other options, such as GPS or cell-tower based location data, which allow centralized authorities access to the information.
After examining the software framework and speaking to the tech companies in detail about how it works, Cavoukian, who has no affiliations with either company, says she trusts that the application is secure and privacy friendly.
“I always say privacy is about personal control and that's what is built into this,” she explained.
“[Users] control all the data they want to share and the decision to share it.”
Apple and Google have already agreed to provide the open source software to public health authorities free of charge.
Officials in Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador have not commented on what software companies are or will be involved with their contact tracing efforts.
Industry Minister Navdeep Bains previously noted that the federal government is looking into “different solutions” for contact tracing technology, noting that both provincial and federal officials are “engaging with different organizations across the country.”
“We need to make sure that Canadians feel confident that this tool or this solution protects their personal privacy,” Bains said during a media availability on April 23.
“Those are the issues that we're engaged with, with different organizations that are looking at these solutions.”
Cavoukian notes that governments also need to ensure the firm end date of any data tracking once the pandemic comes to an end.
“I want to make sure that any tracking and surveillance tools they may put into place come to an end with firm sunset clauses -- solid end dates where all of this, full stop, comes to an end and everything is deleted,” she said, noting Google and Apple have promised to do so.