In an effort to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has invoked the Quarantine Act requiring those returning from abroad to self-isolate. Ontario’s former information and privacy commissioner says if deaths increase exponentially the government could enact measures to track cellphone data to further limit the spread.
“Let’s say the number of COVID-19 [deaths] in Toronto or Ontario tripled. Maybe they would use that as the excuse or a reason needed to invoke it,” Ann Cavoukian said in an interview.
“I don’t know because I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want my mind to go there. But I would think a dramatic increase would possibly get them doing that.”
As of March 26, there are a total of 13 deaths reported in Ontario that are related to the coronavirus; there are 35 deaths in the country.
During a press conference on March 25, Trudeau indicated that the government was “not taking measures” like collecting anonymous cellphone data to track the spread of the virus.
“We recognize in an emergency situation we need to take certain steps that wouldn’t be taken in a non-emergency situation, but that is not something we are looking at now,” Trudeau said. “But all options are on the table to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe.”
Cavoukian said that Trudeau said nothing was off the table because he is aware of these rules.
“There are, unfortunately, privacy laws that can be invoked by the government that will enable them to engage in behaviours that wouldn’t be permitted under the [privacy] act. All privacy acts have these kinds of emergency measures, they’re supposed to be a last resort,” she said.
“They’re supposed to be time-limited, clear sunset clauses, full transparency associated with what the government is doing.”
Cavoukian said that she didn’t think we were at that point yet for the prime minister to invoke rules and said “we should never get to that point.”
“When you are collecting all the personal information of citizens that just encroaches upon their freedom without privacy,” she said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory initially said the city was collecting anonymous location data already, as first reported by The Logic, but later retracted his statements. A spokesperson clarified in an email that Toronto was not collecting any data.
Bell, Telus, Rogers, and Shaw Communications’ Freedom Mobile confirmed in emailed statements that they have not been approached by the City of Toronto to gather cellphone data.
Jesse Hirsh, president of Metaviews, said in an interview that these measures should have already been invoked.
“I’m surprised that they have not already collected anonymized location [data] because given that both the federal government and the provincial government over the last few days have been escalating language around voluntary self-isolation, this would be one way to verify and find evidence instead of the government guessing,” he said.
“I’d rather the government instead of guessing that people are or are not complying. I’d rather that they have accurate evidence.”
He added that collecting this data raises privacy concerns but they’re “minor privacy concerns” as this data is helpful in terms of informing public health policy.
Hirsh noted that if the government drafted policy they would be able to work with the Privacy Commissioner to ensure the protection of the data and how it would be used.
“We can have our cake and eat it too,” he said. “The expertise exists within the federal government.”
Stephanie Carvin, a security expert and assistant professor at Carleton University, doesn’t think these measures will be taken any time soon and most likely would be taken at a later date when things have restored back to normalcy.
“You would almost want to implement something like this if the situation improved and we had an open society again,” she said.
“Let’s say if you were able to flatten that curve and then over a period of 18 months, you’re waiting, and all of a sudden there are flare-ups in the country and you want to contain it. That’s when something more targeted might be useful.”
Carvin indicated that even if the government were to take these measures it would require a lot of moving parts and individuals to get on board to make it happen.
“People think that there’s some kind of switch we can flick, and it’s not that easy,” she said.
She also added that even if the government were able to track the data, they would have to be explicit in terms of what they were collecting and how it was to be used.
“It’s just not clear to me, how that would be done, by who, under what circumstances,” she said.