PM Trudeau says any digital contact tracing must be balanced with privacy concerns
OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the privacy of Canadians must be taken into account as the government looks at proposals for digital contact tracing technology and apps amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Government officials at both provincial and federal levels have been looking into digital measures for tracking incidents where COVID-19 positive people might have come into contact with others. The measures have been used in both South Korea and Singapore, and officials have indicated digital tracing methods could cut down transmission rates.
"We have a number of proposals and companies working on different models that might be applicable to Canada. But as we move forward on taking decisions, we're going to keep in mind that Canadians put a very high value on their privacy, on their data security," Trudeau said.
"Getting that balance right will be extremely important."
Contact tracing is a key element of Canada’s guidelines for when provinces can start to reopen their economies. In the guidelines, released Tuesday, one of the criteria for reopening the economy is that sufficient capacity is in place to test, trace and isolate the virus so when, for example, someone around you tests positive, you will be notified quickly so you can isolate.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam confirmed during her Wednesday press conference that various departments, both federally and provincially, are actively looking into this kind of technology.
"That process is currently at play," Tam said when asked if the government is undertaking a "rigorous survey" of contact tracing apps and technology.
She added that it's not just health, but other departments that are looking into this as well.
"If it does make people's lives easier, if it makes it more efficient, then that would be important," Dr. Tam said, noting that the bottom line is just ensuring those on the front lines have what they need to do contact tracing.
She also noted that beyond privacy concerns, there are also concerns about mistakes that may come with certain technologies that are currently being developed.
"The other concerns are…false positives, where you just happen to, you know, maybe drive by, swing by, pass someone and suddenly your phone goes bing. Those kinds of characteristics [are] not what you want to have, because that would alarm a whole bunch of people. They may then show up to be tested when in fact they were not at risk," Tam said.
For some groups, the government's interest in these sorts of technologies poses a real privacy concern. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association's Brenda McPhail wrote in a blog post on March 19 that "we must be particularly alert to privacy erosions in times of emergency that may shift the social license for such intrusions after the crisis has passed."
"The trick, of course, is ensuring that we find ways to get the necessary information that are proportionate and minimally intrusive for the humans whose health is at the core of the data collection efforts —even if the proportionality analysis may look a little different during a pandemic," McPhail wrote.
Speaking to CTV Power Play host Evan Solomon on Wednesday, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said the government "feels very strongly" about protecting the privacy of Canadians.
"We've had conversations with a number of companies — we haven't made any decisions. We are looking at what are the possibilities. Should we decide to go ahead with something like that, it would have to meet Canadians' high standards for privacy and ethical use of those technologies," Guilbeault said.
In a bid help the government achieve that standard, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada published an assessment framework for "privacy-impactful initiatives" in response to COVID 19.
The framework sets out key principles, including that the government must have a clear legal basis for any measures that impact Canadians' privacy, that they must be proportionate and that the information collected must be used for the intended purpose.
"During a crisis, laws can be applied flexibly and contextually, but they must still apply. Our framework aims to focus on what we believe are the most relevant principles in context, without abandoning others," Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien said in his release about the framework, published April 17.
However, McPhail warned that allowing such surveillance efforts into our democracy without proper precautions can shift social license beyond the period of crisis — ultimately eroding privacy rights.
"When it comes to individual level surveillance for ‘public good’ we must resist normalizing such efforts or the tools that support them," she wrote.
With files from CTV's Nicole Bogart and CTV's Rachel Aiello