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Pandemic raises privacy concerns highlighting urgency of law reform

New public health measures such as contact tracing applications are raising questions about privacy protection around the globe


PHOTO: Daniel Therrien, Privacy Commissioner of Canada

GATINEAU, Que. — The COVID-19 pandemic is raising important new privacy issues in a context where federal laws do not provide Canadians with effective protection, according to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

New public health measures such as contact tracing applications are raising questions about privacy protection around the globe. At the same time, the need for social distancing has accelerated the digitization of daily activities that also raise privacy concerns, according to the federal privacy watchdog.

“Federal laws are simply not up to protecting our rights in our rapidly evolving digital environment,” said Commissioner Daniel Therrien in a statement. “Privacy and the pursuit of public health and economic recovery are not contradictory. They can, and must be, achieved concurrently.”

“We need a legal framework that will allow technologies to produce benefits in the public interest while also preserving our fundamental right to privacy. This is an opportune moment to demonstrate to Canadians that they can have both.”

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The Office of the Privacy Commissioner says while technologies have been useful in halting the spread of COVID-19, they are creating new risks. For instance, telemedicine creates risks to doctor-patient confidentiality when virtual platforms involve commercial enterprises. E-learning platforms can capture sensitive information about students’ learning disabilities and behavioural issues.

The Commissioner cited his office’s review of the COVID Alert exposure notification application as an example of how privacy respectful practices can be built into the design of an initiative to achieve public health goals.

However, the pandemic is creating challenges that underscore how good privacy protection must not be merely something government and companies are free to do if they wish, but rather a legal requirement they must respect, the watchdog says.

The Commissioner’s annual report also addresses other work under the Privacy Act, which applies to the federal public sector; and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, Canada’s federal private sector privacy law. This includes statistical information, descriptions of business and government advisory work, as well as summaries of investigations.

Highlighted investigations include one that examined privacy issues related to RateMDs.com, a website where patients can rate and review health care professionals, and another related to a leak related to a Supreme Court nomination.

Check out the 2019-20 Annual Report to Parliament on the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act and the Privacy Act.


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