Contact tracing stirs debate in Canada

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What you need to know

  • A report has revealed that privacy watchdogs in Canada are worried about contact tracing.
  • Some have voiced concern over what they think is a totally new level of surveillance.
  • Others have suggested that with the right laws, the technology can be used effectively without disenfranchising individuals.

A report from Canada has revealed that watchdogs are concerned about the potential levels of surveillance involved with contact tracing.

As CFJC Today reports:

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.

The report notes onlookers who are worried about the level of surveillance required for contact tracing, Christopher Parsons of Citizen Lab stating:

"When we develop these sorts of tools or applications, we're entering into a totally new class or form of surveillance... We've never had that level of surveillance in this country... 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."

The report states that there's been a mixed response to contact tracing in the country, but only Quebec has "strongly pushed back" against its use. The Quebec Health Ministry stated that "Geolocation cannot replace the contact tracing actions carried out by the public-health departments" and that technology should not make it possible to identify infected individuals. Canada's privacy commissioner stated that whilst "laws can be applied flexibly and contextually" during a crisis, they still have to be applied.

In contrast, Dr. Peter Philips of the University of British Columbia stated:

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."

Interestingly, Dr. Philips also said that the "rights of those people who are not yet infected" should be taken into account and that as a result, we should do everything possible to contain the virus.

The mood in the country reflects wider debate ongoing regarding the use of contact tracing as a means to overcome COVID-19. Apple and Google have clashed with governments in France and the UK over proposals to use a centralized database of users as part of contact tracing solutions, something Apple and Google are strongly against.

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Stephen Warwick