Privacy Commissioner of Canada Daniel Therrien listens during a news conference in Vancouver, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

COVID-19 pandemic accelerating digital privacy risks, federal watchdog warns

The commissioner’s office gave the thumbs-up to the government’s COVID Alert app

The COVID-19 pandemic is underscoring weaknesses in Canadian privacy law that place people’s personal information at risk, a federal watchdog warns.

In his annual report presented Thursday, privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said the pandemic is fuelling rapid societal and economic changes at a time when outdated laws provide inadequate protection.

The spread of the virus and the resulting need to distance oneself from others has accelerated the digital revolution, bringing both benefits and risks for privacy, Therrien said.

He cited the heated debates about contact-tracing and exposure-alert applications and their effect on privacy, and the fact many have been asked to provide details about their health at airports or before entering workplaces and stores.

Telemedicine creates risks to doctor-patient confidentiality when virtual platforms involve commercial enterprises, he said. In addition, e-learning platforms can capture sensitive information about students’ learning disabilities and other behavioural issues.

“It should be obvious for everyone that privacy protection is weak,” Therrien told a news conference.

The commissioner’s office gave the thumbs-up to the government’s COVID Alert app, intended to tell people when they have come near someone who has the virus.

However, government officials declared during discussions about the digital tool that federal privacy law did not apply to the app, Therrien said.

“This assertion certainly gives one pause: An extremely privacy-sensitive initiative is defended by the government of Canada as not subject to its privacy laws.

“Privacy is considered by the government as a good practice but not a legal requirement. How long can this go on?”

Therrien has repeatedly called for modernization of Canada’s privacy laws, which lag behind many around the globe.

He has pressed for new authority to issue binding orders to companies and levy fines for non-compliance with privacy law. Therrien also wants powers to inspect the information-handling practices of organizations.

Rachel Rappaport, a spokeswoman for Justice Minister David Lametti, said the government is committed to reviewing the Privacy Act, which applies to government agencies and federally regulated industries, to ensure it keeps pace with the effects of technological change and evolving Canadian values.

The government has already solicited the views of experts and interested parties, and it plans to consult the broader public soon, she said.

Canadians are understandably anxious about how their data is being used in an increasingly digital world, said John Power, a spokesman for Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains.

The government is moving to strengthen the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, which covers private-sector organizations, he said.

“Our government will ensure respect for the privacy of Canadians, support responsible innovation and enhance reasonable enforcement powers.

“We expect to have more to say on this soon.”

A recovery from the pandemic based on innovation will be sustainable only if rights are protected through stronger legislation, Therrien said.

“It is more than time for Canada to catch up to other countries,” he said. “All Canadians deserve strong privacy protections.”

ALSO READ: B.C. privacy commissioner will hear First Nations complaints about COVID

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusPrivacy

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

Just Posted

Alberta Health Services' central zone jumped from 162 active COVID-19 cases to 178 on Friday. Five additional deaths were reported provincewide, bringing the toll to 323. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
622 new COVID-19 cases set another daily high Friday

Province confirmed 622 additional cases Friday

City of Wetaskiwin Mayor presenting the AUMA Above & Beyond Award to John Maude and Susan Quinn. Ren Goode/ City of Wetaskiwin.
Wetaskiwin County residents win the AUMA Above & Beyond Award

John Maude and Susan Quinn are being recognized for their role in Wetaskiwin’s sustainability.

Alberta children whose only symptom of COVID-19 is a runny nose or a sore throat will no longer require mandatory isolation, starting Monday.
477 new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Alberta on Thursday

Changes being made to the COVID-19 symptom list for school-age children

There were 410 COVID-19 cases recorded in Alberta Wednesday. (File photo)
Alberta records 410 COVID-19 cases Wednesday

Central zone dropped to 160 active cases

Shaun Isaac, owner of Woodchucker Firewood in Trochu, is awaiting a new shipment during a firewood shortage in the province. All of the wood he has left is being saved for long-time customers who need it to heat their homes. (Contributed photo).
Firewood shortage in central Alberta caused by rising demand, gaps in supply

‘I’ve said “No” to more people than ever’: firewood seller

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday October 28, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Conversion therapy ban gets approval in principle, exposes Conservative divisions

Erin O’Toole himself voted in favour of the bill, as did most Conservative MPs

Pilots Ilona Carter and Jim Gray of iRecover Treatment Centres, in front of his company’s aircraft, based at Ponoka’s airport. (Perry Wilson/Submitted)
95-year-old Ilona Carter flies again

Takes to the skies over Ponoka

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a daycare in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. Alberta Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz says the province plans to bring in a new way of licensing and monitoring child-care facilities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Alberta proposes legislation to change rules on child-care spaces

Record-keeping, traditionally done on paper, would be allowed digitally

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with US Vice-President Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
A Biden presidency could mean good news for Canadian environment policy: observers

Experts and observers say even a U.S. outside the Paris agreement may ultimately end up in the same place

People take a photo together during the opening night of Christmas Lights Across Canada, in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. The likelihood that most Canadians will enjoy a holly jolly Christmas season of gatherings, caroling and travel is unlikely, say public health experts who encourage those who revel in holiday traditions to accept more sacrifices ahead. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Ho, ho, no: Experts advise preparing for a scaled-back COVID holiday season

Many of the holiday season’s highlights have already been scrapped or are unlikely to take place

Sen. Kim Pate is shown in Toronto in an October 15, 2013, file photo. The parliamentary budget office says a proposed law that would give judges discretion on whether to apply a lesser sentence for murder could save the federal government $8.3 million per year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel
Judicial discretion for mandatory minimum sentences for murder would save $8.3M: PBO

The result would be fewer people in long-term custody at federal correctional institutions, experts say

Husky Energy logo is shown at the company’s annual meeting in Calgary on May 5, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Husky pipeline spills 900,000 litres of produced water in northwestern Alberta

The energy regulator says environmental contractors are at the site

Most Read