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

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privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said the pandemic is fuelling rapid societal and economic changes at a time when outdated laws provide inadequate protection.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

cat
Spirit’s Respite Ranch near Stettler provides support through animal interaction

‘I also come from a family of doers - if something that is needed isn’t there, you just figure it out’

SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, which causes COVID-19, emerge from the surface of cells isolated from a patient in the U.S. and cultured in a lab in a 2020 electron microscope image. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-HO, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories
Alberta now has 17,743 active cases of COVID-19

Province now has 17,743 active cases

town
Town of Castor meeting highlights from the Nov. 23rd meeting

Castor’s town council has approved an interim budget going into 2021

county
The County of Paintearth Council has approved the 2021 operational and capital budgets

Capital spending approved for 2021 amounts to just over $3.8 million

Idyllic winter scenes are part of the atmosphere of the holiday season, and are depicted in many seasonal movies. How much do you know about holiday movies? Put your knowledge to the test. (Pixabay.com)
QUIZ: Test your knowledge of holiday movies and television specials

The festive season is a time for relaxing and enjoying some seasonal favourites

Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps poses for a photo with his parents Amanda Sully and Adam Deschamps in this undated handout photo. Ten-month-old Aidan Deschamps was the first baby in Canada to be diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy through Ontario’s newborn screening program. The test was added to the program six days before he was born. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Children’s Hospital Eastern Ontario *MANDATORY CREDIT*
First newborn tested for spinal muscular atrophy in Canada hits new milestones

‘If Aidan had been born any earlier or anywhere else our story would be quite different’

People line up at a COVID-19 assessment centre during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. Toronto and Peel region continue to be in lockdown. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
COVID-19 vaccine approval could be days away as pressures mount on health-care system

Many health officials in regions across the country have reported increasing pressures on hospitals

File Photo
Sylvan Lake Town Council squashes mask bylaw

The bylaw did not make it past first reading, after a 4-3 vote defeated the motion

A logo for Netflix on a remote control is seen in Portland, Ore.,Aug. 13, 2020. Experts in taxation and media say a plan announced Monday by the government will ultimately add to the cost of digital services and goods sold by foreign companies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jenny Kane
‘Netflix tax’ for digital media likely to raise prices for consumers, experts say

The government says Canadian companies already collect those taxes when they make digital sales

Gaming content was big on YouTube in 2020. (Black Press Media files)
What did Canadians watch on Youtube during isolation? Workouts, bird feeders

Whether it was getting fit or ‘speaking moistly,’ Canadians had time to spare this year

A teacher places the finishing touches on the welcome sign at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School which is part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Hindsight 2020: How do you preserve a year many Canadians would rather forget?

Figuring out how to preserve the story of the pandemic poses a series of challenges

Team Manitoba celebrate after defeating Team Ontario to win the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Moose Jaw, Sask., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. Curling Canada wants Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park to be a curling hub for the season’s top events. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Calgary facility set to become curling hub during pandemic

Curling Canada has provisional approval for Calgary’s hub-city concept from Alberta Health

Most Read