By: Jordan Prokopy and John B. Simcoe
As governments across the country begin to reopen their economies, companies are considering a myriad of measures to keep employees and customers safe. App-based contact tracing may be the key to effectively managing the pandemic and minimizing risk of infections, but companies are uncertain about using or mandating it for employees and customers. A coordinated government strategy and clarity on how privacy laws apply in current circumstances is needed.
Without clear guidance we may be faced with unwanted situations. Either we continue to have forced closures with big consequences to our economy or we have a patchwork of approaches that could range anywhere from forcing employees back to an environment where they do not feel safe to employers across Canada using a multitude of contact tracing apps that do not communicate with one another - leading to ineffective tracing and uncertainty over how each one protects your personal data.
Neither scenario is wanted — so how do we enhance our public health measures across the country in all settings without sacrificing privacy, and vice-versa?
Thus far, tracing across Canada has been deployed in a manual fashion. Any success will depend ultimately on the availability of public resources to expand the program on a mass scale. It also assumes that a statistically significant percentage of Canadians are willing to participate in the program and voluntarily provide the personal information necessary to facilitate it.
For example, GPS-enabled applications that use location information to track individuals’ movements may be considered ‘creepy’, but a bluetooth-based app that uses anonymous encrypted data could have more appeal. Nonetheless, GPS-enabled data could be provided by the telecommunications companies and put to effective use by public health authorities in the fight against COVID-19.
Privacy laws still apply during this public health crisis, but they cannot be a barrier to appropriate information sharing. In fact, privacy can enable governments to advance the reopening of the economy, and empower individuals, organizations and their employees to adapt to a new normal.
Canada has already initiated steps to enhance its privacy framework. The Digital Charter is the government’s roadmap to reforming Canada’s private sector privacy law and focuses on enhancing Canadians’ privacy rights while supporting the digital economy.
Privacy law reforms need to balance consent with an accountability framework - where organizations can demonstrate their responsible use of data to support activities that benefit society like our health and economic recovery, accompanied by sound regulatory oversight. This is key to gaining Canadians’ trust. It may also be the solution to increasing contact tracing app adoption rates in the absence of a mandated model.
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