Privacy watchdogs around the country say they are concerned about apps tracking COVID-19 patients. (The Canadian Press files)

Privacy watchdogs around the country say they are concerned about apps tracking COVID-19 patients. (The Canadian Press files)

Privacy watchdogs concerned about apps tracking COVID-19 patients

Provinces across the country looking to implement smartphone apps to help track COVID-19.

Privacy watchdogs are voicing concerns over proposals across the country to implement smartphone apps to help track COVID-19.

New Brunswick, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan are among the provinces looking at or planning on creating smartphone apps that would track a user’s whereabouts.

Alberta is the first province to launch an app.

Known as contact tracing, the apps track those who the user comes in to contact with, commonly by monitoring a device’s Bluetooth signal.

The use of the technology, and the information the apps gather, has become a subject of debate in Canada.

“When we develop these sorts of tools or applications, we’re entering into a totally new class or form of surveillance,” said Christopher Parsons, a senior research associate at Citizen Lab, part of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Policy. “We’ve never had that level of surveillance in this country.”

Parsons, whose research focuses on data privacy and security, said governments may have good intentions but they need to be prepared for the long-term implications of collecting such data.

“If the government doesn’t communicate what government organizations can or can’t collect with any kind of tracing application, it will almost certainly disenfranchise individuals,” he said.

The reaction at various government levels to creating and implementing the apps has been mixed.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government has received a number of proposals but understands that Canadians value their privacy and need certain assurances.

Alberta launched its app, called ABTraceTogether, on Friday. It uses Bluetooth signals to track users and if you’re diagnosed with COVID-19, it will contact those you may have come into contact with.

The province said no identifiable information is exchanged between the app users and geolocation data will not be collected.

A spokesman for New Brunswick’s Ministry of Health said its app would allow those diagnosed with COVID-19 to send an anonymous message to those they have come in contact with.

Other provinces are taking a wait-and-see approach.

British Columbia is not looking at contact tracing apps at this time, while a spokesperson for Ontario’s Health Ministry said no decision has been made.

Only Quebec has strongly pushed back against using contact tracing technology and apps.

“Geolocation cannot replace the contact tracing actions carried out by the public-health departments. In addition, it must not at any time make it possible to identify an individual, in particular, a person suffering from COVID-19,” the Quebec Health Ministry said in a statement.

The discussion prompted Canada’s privacy commissioner to release a framework for governments. It says collected data should be destroyed when the pandemic ends and that measures must be science-based and “necessary to achieve a specific identified 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,” said commissioner Daniel Therrien.

Dr. Peter Phillips, an infectious disease expert at the University of British Columbia, said privacy rights aren’t the only issue and Canadians need to make sacrifices based on the benefit for public health.

“Rather than just assuming this is an unacceptable intrusion on people’s privacy, there are potentially substantial benefits to be had by having public health response use technology,” he said in an interview.

Phillips agreed that privacy issues must be handled carefully.

“The rights of those people who are not yet infected with COVID need to be taken into account as well, because if we don’t do everything that we can to contain this by way of public health, then people are going to get sick and some of them will die.”

Other countries using such apps are promising to keep a close eye on how the data is used and shared.

Australia launched COVIDSafe and has promised to take only minimal data from its users. Italy has decreed that the information its app collects will remain anonymous and be destroyed by the end of the year.

The rise in popularity of the apps even prompted a joint effort from Google and Apple to allow programming interfaces to work together to share data. Those with Android or Apple smartphone products will both be able to better share data to allow developers to create tracing apps.

The plan, the companies said, is to launch Bluetooth tracing software in the coming months.

In Canada, there are concerns about oversight and guidelines on how the information will be shared.

“It really is an extraordinary invasion of privacy for a democratic state to request,” said Brenda McPhail, the director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s privacy, technology and surveillance project.

She said there would need to be an equally extraordinary level of oversight.

Geoffrey Rotstein, CEO of Toronto company EQ Works, said he’s aware of the concerns.

His company is developing an app that would track a smartphone’s Bluetooth technology but would keep a user’s data stored on their phone, not a server.

“We believe we could develop something that becomes a very proactive notification tool,” he said. “So, we can proactively identify people in places at risk and help protect people’s lives and help get life back to normal faster.”

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said this week that in addition to privacy concerns, the technology itself remains unproven and will need to be refined to ensure false positives and other issues do not emerge.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coronavirus

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

Just Posted

The Lake Cowichan Legion received federal funding in December, 2020 to help the organization weather the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted)
Lake Cowichan Legion receives federal COVID-19 assistance funding

Can be used for expenses such as insurance, utilities, rent or mortgages, property taxes, and wages.

Tim Schewe
Drivesmart column: Do you know someone who should not be driving?

We are currently living about 10 years longer than our ability to drive safely.

Chris Wilkinson
Chris Wilkinson column: Time to slow down to speed up

In a society where we learn (are forced?) to multitask like crazy

A COVID-19 exposure has been reported at Shawnigan Lake School. (Citizen file photo)
UPDATED: Island Health reports COVID-19 exposure at Shawnigan Lake School

Shawnigan Lake School has been added to the list of schools in… Continue reading

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

It pins the blame largely on a lack of supports, a corrupted drug supply

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Wet’suwet’en supporters and Coastal GasLink opponents continue to protest outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, February 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
‘We’re still in it’: Wet’suwet’en push forward on rights recognition

The 670-km Coastal GasLink pipeline was approved by B.C. and 20 elected First Nations councils on its path

The sky above Mt. Benson in Nanaimo is illuminated by flares as search and rescuers help an injured hiker down the mountain to a waiting ambulance. (Photo courtesy Nanaimo Search and Rescue)
Search plane lights up Nanaimo mountain with flares during icy rope rescue

Rescuers got injured hiker down Mt. Benson to a waiting ambulance Saturday night

Jennifer Cochrane, a Public Health Nurse with Prairie Mountain Health in Virden, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Robert Farquhar with Westman Regional Laboratory, during the first day of immunizations at the Brandon COVID-19 vaccination supersite in Brandon, Man., on Monday, January 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tim Smith - POOL
Top doctor urges Canadians to keep up with COVID measures, even as vaccines roll out

More than 776,606 vaccines have been administered so far

From the left: Midway RCMP Csts. Jonathan Stermscheg and Chris Hansen, Public Servant Leanne Mclaren and Cpl. Phil Peters. Pictured in the front are Mclaren’s dog, Lincoln and Peters’ dog, Angel. Photo courtesy of BC RCMP
B.C. Mounties commended for bringing firewood to elderly woman

Cpl. Phil Peters said he and detachment members acted after the woman’s husband went to hospital

Dr. Jerome Leis and Dr. Lynfa Stroud are pictured at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
‘It wasn’t called COVID at the time:’ One year since Canada’s first COVID-19 case

The 56-year-old man was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

An Uber driver’s vehicle is seen after the company launched service, in Vancouver, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Several taxi companies have lost a court bid to run Uber and Lyft off the road in British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Taxi companies lose court bid to quash Uber, Lyft approvals in British Columbia

Uber said in a statement that the ruling of the justice is clear and speaks for itself

Most Read