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privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said the pandemic is fuelling rapid societal and economic changes at a time when outdated laws provide inadequate protection.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

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Thursday that the province has seen its first case of the B.1.617 variant. (Photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Red Deer nears record number of active COVID-19 cases

Alberta reports 1,857 new cases of COVID-19, 1,326 new variants

People line up outside an immunization clinic to get their Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Edmonton, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta passes bill to give all workers paid leave to get COVID-19 vaccine shot

Labour Minister Jason Copping says Bill 71 will reduce barriers for Alberta workers to get vaccinated

Alberta completed 18,412 COVID-19 tests, as reported on Wednesday, for a test positivity rate of 9.5 per cent. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Highest daily count of 2021 so far: Alberta reports 1,699 COVID-19 cases

Variants now make up 59 per cent of Alberta’s active cases

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Premier Jason Kenney say the province would look at adding additional COVID-19 measures in the coming weeks if the virus continues to spread. (Photo by Government of Alberta)
Walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic to open in Red Deer

Alberta adds 1,345 new cases of the virus

Public health restrictions on non-essential travel and vacation bookings are being increased in B.C. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. announces signage along Alberta border to discourage non-essential travel

B.C. extends COVID-19 indoor dining, group fitness ban until May 25

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

A health care worker prepares to test a Coastal GasLink field worker for COVID-19. (Coastal GasLink photo)
Alberta bill would protect health workers, care homes from some COVID-19 lawsuits

The bill proposes exempting a range of workers, including doctors, pharmacists and care-home operators, from being sued over COVID-19 unless it was for gross negligence

Journal de Montreal is seen in Montreal, on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The daily newspaper uses a file picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in traditional Indian clothing during his trip to India to illustrate a story on the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Montreal newspaper blasted for front-page photo of Trudeau in India

Trudeau is wearing traditional Indian clothes and holding his hands together in prayer beside a caption that reads, ‘The Indian variant has arrived’

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was in Red Deer on Friday to provide an update on the province's COVID-19 response in schools.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Alberta government aiming to boost financial literacy among students

Government providing grants to organizations who will help design financial literacy programming

President Joe Biden holds a virtual bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
U.S. to help Canada with more COVID-19 vaccine supply, Biden says

The U.S. has already provided Canada with about 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, center, is taken into custody as his attorney, Eric Nelson, left, looks on, after the verdicts were read at Chauvin’s trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Court TV via AP, Pool
George Floyd’s death was ‘wake-up call’ about systemic racism: Trudeau

Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday on all three charges against him

sign
Alberta Biobord Corp. recently hosted a virtual open house from Stettler

The company plans to develop a fuel pellet and medium density fibre board (MDF) plant near the community

Most Read