Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says while there could be a role for using apps and virtual tracking to trace coronavirus cases in Canada, those measures would likely need to be voluntary to earn public support.
In a daily briefing with journalists outside Rideau Cottage on Wednesday, Trudeau was asked about the possibility of using measures like digital contact tracing and apps to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus as some regions move toward easing lockdown restrictions.
He said the focus of any new tools would need to be on respecting the privacy of Canadians.
“We have a number of proposals and companies working on different models that might be applicable to Canada but as we move forward on taking decisions, we’re going to keep in mind that Canadians put a very high value on their privacy, on their data security,” he said.
“We need to make sure we respect that even in a time of emergency measures and significant difficultly.”
Trudeau said countries around the world have different levels of respect for people’s privacy and suggested that measures taken elsewhere won’t necessarily gain support in Canada.
“There are possibilities around using voluntary measures or other things but every step of the way we will hold true to the values that mean so much to Canadians around privacy and security,” he said.
Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Howard Njoo was also asked about the potential for using apps and said it’s a question public health officials are actively considering.
“We are currently looking into these apps and their potential,” he said.
“We are continually looking into these options but we know it’s important to strike a balance between these objectives of public health and the issues relating to privacy, confidentiality of Canadians throughout all provinces and territories.”
He added: “This is a very live issue and we’re continuing to work on it.”
The comments prompted Conservative innovation critic Michelle Rempel Garner to warn that the existing rules that are supposed to protect Canadians’ privacy are not good enough.
“Canadian digital privacy laws were inadequate prior to COVID-19. This is made clear by constant data hacks and a consent-based model that forces individuals to consent to fine print that is incomprehensible and exploitative,” she said in an emailed statement.
Rempel Garner said the government should strengthen data protection laws before agreeing to any technological surveillance or monitoring of Canadians.
“Before a contract is signed with a contact tracing company, we need to know under what framework and guidelines the government is operating under,” she added.
“Canadians shouldn’t have to give up their right to privacy in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. I will continue to press for answers.”
Australia earlier this month rolled out a voluntary coronavirus tracking app as part of its effort to combat the spread of the virus. In other countries, citizens don’t get a choice.
South Korea amended its laws to let health officials track location data from cellphones, car navigation systems and credit-card systems to keep tabs on its citizens.
Poland requires infected individuals to share photos with geolocation data to prove they are maintaining their quarantine orders.
Singapore uses an app it describes as voluntary but that allows the government to prosecute people who refuse to share their information through it when asked under the Infectious Diseases Act.
The U.K. is also looking into using location data to trace contacts.
Experts have warned though that those measures would not be acceptable to the Canadian public.