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privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien said the pandemic is fuelling rapid societal and economic changes at a time when outdated laws provide inadequate protection.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

Just Posted

CVSE officer checking out all the trucks before the convoy, which started at Riverlodge Recreational Centre in Kitimat BC and finished at the George Little Park in Terrace BC. (Jacob Lubberts photo)
VIDEO: Kitimat truck drivers rally together in honour of 215 bodies discovered at Kamloops Residential School

The convoy started at Riverlodge Recreational Centre and finished at the George Little Park

Coast Mountains School District No. 82 acting superintendent of schools, Janet Meyer, talks about policies and procedures relating to the death of Diversity Morgan, a LGBTQ+ student. (Black Press file)
School District 82 to revisit policy after transgender student’s death

Diversity’ death has created a deeper resolve for CMSD 82 to continue doing the work they started

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

Outside the Kitimat RCMP police station, Diversity Morgan’s family and Kitimat RCMP come together for a pride flag-raising ceremony. (Jacob Lubberts photo)
With heavy hearts, the Kitimat RCMP hosted a pride flag ceremony to highlight the RCMP’s commitment to inclusion and diversification, as well as honouring the passing of 15-year-old transgender student, Diversity Morgan, from Kitimat.
Speeches were given by Staff Sergeant Graham Morgan, Mayor Phil Germuth, Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith, and Diversity’s father, Mike Wilson.
“We are gathered here for the pride flag ceremony, but in my mind, we’re gathered here in solidarity for anyone who’s ever experienced prejudice or discrimination. […] Today we celebrate what makes us all unique individuals,” Mayor Phil Germuth said in his speech at the pride flag ceremony.
Struggling to get the words out, Crystal Smith, Haisla Nation’s chief councillor, emphasized her condolences to Diversity’s family in her speech sharing her similar experiences as well as acknowledging the need for education around these subjects.
Diversity’s father, Mike Wilson, said he wished that everyone was there under different circumstances but was grateful to see the turnout and the support from the community.
In honour of Diversity, the Kitimat RCMP also lowered their Canadian flag to half-mast, to bring awareness for people who are experiencing discrimination and are in need of additional support.
The Kitimat RCMP also stated that they will be lowering their Canadian flag around this time every year as a visual representation of LGBTQ+.
Kitimat Save-On-Foods also donated water and snacks for the ceremony.
Kitimat RCMP host pride flag ceremony in memory of Diversity Morgan

“We’re gathered here in solidarity for anyone who’s ever experienced prejudice or discrimination”

(Haisla First Nation logo)
Haisla Nation host walk for strength and series of virtual sessions for Indigenous History Month

The purpose of the walk is to bring Haisla Nation members together and show their collective support

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
VIDEO: Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

Paul Bernardo is shown in this courtroom sketch during Ontario court proceedings via video link in Napanee, Ont., on October 5, 2018. Teen killer and serial rapist Paul Bernardo is set for a parole hearing today. The designated dangerous offender, has been eligible for full parole for more than three years. Bernardo’s horrific crimes in the 1980s and early 1990s include for kidnapping, torturing and killing Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy near St. Catharines, Ont. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Greg Banning
Killer rapist Paul Bernardo faces parole hearing today; victim families opposed

Designated dangerous offender has been eligible for full parole for more than three years.

People look over the damage after a tornado touched down in Mascouche, Que., north of Montreal, Monday, June 21, 2021. Dozens of homes were damaged and one death has been confirmed. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
One dead and extensive damage as tornado hits Mascouche, Que., north of Montreal

Damage reported in several parts of the city, and emergency teams dispatched to sectors hardest hit

Chilliwack secondary school’s principal is apologizing after a quote equating graduation with the end of slavery in the U.S. was included in the 2020-2021 yearbook. (Screenshot from submitted SnapChat)
B.C. student’s yearbook quote equates grad to end of slavery; principal cites editing error

Black former student ‘disgusted’ as CSS principal apologizes for what is called an editing error

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross. (Photo by Peter Versteege)
BC Liberal leadership candidate condemns ‘senseless violence’ of Okanagan church fires

Skeena MLA Ellis Ross says reconciliation isn’t about revenge for past tragedies

A coroner’s inquest will be taking place at the Capitol Theatre in Port Alberni for the next week. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
Teen B.C. mom who died following police custody recalled as ‘friend to many’

Police sent Jocelyn George to hospital after intoxication had gone ‘beyond the realm’ of normal detox

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2020, file photo, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. Nassib on Monday, June 21, 2021, became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Nassib announced the news on Instagram, saying he was not doing it for the attention but because “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay

More than a dozen NFL players have come out as gay after their careers were over

Penticton Indian Band Chief Greg Gabriel speaks to the Sacred Hearts Catholic Church burning down early Monday morning, June 21, 2021. (Monique Tamminga Western News)
Penticton band chief condemns suspicious burning of 2 Catholic churches

Both Catholic church fires are deemed suspicious, says RCMP

COVID-19 daily cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day moving average to June 17, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infections drop to 90 on Sunday, 45 Monday

Pandemic spread dwindles as 77% of adults receive vaccine

Most Read