The Canadian government released its COVID Alert, its COVID-19 exposure notification app, earlier this month starting first with a roll-out in Ontario. I’ve written how I’ve made the decision to install it, noting that the voluntary app does not collect personal information nor provide the government (or anyone else) with location information. The app underwent two privacy reviews, engaging both the federal privacy commissioner and the Ontario information and privacy commissioner.
Patricia Kosseim, the newly appointed Ontario privacy commissioner, had only been on the job for a few hours before she was dealing with the app that was bound to attract public attention. Commissioner Kosseim joins me on the podcast to discuss the app, her review, the interaction between different governments and commissioners, and why she installed the app the day it was released.
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The Canadian government officially released COVID Alert, its exposure notification app, on Friday. Ontario is the first province to use it with plans to implement it in the Atlantic provinces and B.C. in the near future (other provinces may follow). I posted several tweets about the app, including one that received hundreds of likes and retweets indicating that I have installed it (the tweet included links to the Apple and Android versions of the app). Given the interest, this post expands on the tweet by explaining what the app does and doesn’t do and why I think the government has done a good job of addressing many associated concerns.
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From the very outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, public health officials have identified the potential of contact tracing applications to both assist in conventional contact tracing activities and to warn individuals that they may have been in close proximity to someone who tested positive for the virus. The apps have unsurprisingly proven controversial, with some doubting their effectiveness and others concerned about the broader privacy and security implications.
The Government of Alberta was first off the mark with its ABTraceTogether app that launched in May 2020. Alberta Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton recently completed her review of the application with an extensive investigation into its privacy implications that included an examination of the technical details, how the app functions, the role of third parties, and access to the data by contact tracers and other officials. Commissioner Clayton joins me on the podcast to discuss her report, the positive aspects of the app implementation, and the ongoing concerns that her review uncovered.
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In the months before the coronavirus outbreak, numerous governments around the world enthusiastically jumped on the “regulate tech” train. Digital tax proposals, content regulation requirements, national digital spending mandates, as well as new privacy and data governance rules were viewed by many as essential to respond to the increasing power and influence of digital giants such as Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon.
My Globe and Mail op-ed notes the pandemic has not only sparked a massive shift in economic and health policy priorities, but it is also likely to reorient our views of the tech sector. Companies that only months ago were regarded as a threat are now integral to the delivery of medical equipment, critical to the continuing function of workplaces in a work-from-home world, and the platforms for online education for millions of students. Billions of people rely on the sector for entertainment, communication with friends and family, and as the gateway to health information.
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As governments grapple with challenging questions about when and how to relax the current Coronavirus restrictions and give the green light to re-opening businesses, schools, and community spaces, there has been increasing emphasis on the potential for technology to assist with critical activities such as contact tracing. Canada has moved more cautiously on this issue, but the introduction of contact tracing apps seem likely. What will the apps look like and what legal framework is needed to safeguard a myriad of privacy and civil liberties concerns?
Lilian Edwards is a law professor at Newcastle University where she is the Professor of Law, Innovation and Society. She has been leading a fascinating project that seeks to address the legal concerns that might arise from contact tracing apps with a model bill that could be used to establish safeguards and other legal limits. She joined me on the podcast to talk about the latest developments on contact tracing apps, the growing schism between countries, and the legal rules that could address some of the public concerns.
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