Along with following public health guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians are also facing questionable demands on their personal information.
The grocery giant Sobeys has been inviting people to register online for vaccinations at company-owned pharmacies across Canada, operating as Sobeys, Safeway, Lawtons, Thrifty Foods, FreshCo and Foodland. Before people could sign up, a message said they must agree to Sobeys using their personal information “for marketing purposes.”
The message raised eyebrows — for a free vaccine, administered on behalf of provincial governments?
“Signing up for spam emails … it’s not part and parcel of a vaccination,” said David Fraser, a privacy lawyer in Halifax.
“They’re acting as government agents, or functionaries might be a way to consider it. And the rules that protect our privacy as far as government is concerned, should be the same rules that apply in this sort of circumstance, regardless of who’s paying the paycheck of the person who’s sticking an injection in our arms.”
Sobeys calls the message an error in language that happened as it launched the registry quickly, on March 3rd, to prepare for vaccine rollouts.
The company says it has no intention of sending marketing information to people signing up for vaccines.
After it was notified by Global News, Sobeys changed the language of the message, removing the word “marketing,” and adding the term “for vaccine communication purposes.” The company would not tell us how many clients signed up, before the change.
Among those who want more information is the office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
In a statement, the office says the issue “does raise a number of privacy concerns, and we are following up with Sobeys to discuss the matter.”
“Consent to the receipt of marketing materials, as a condition for vaccine registration, would raise significant concerns,” the statement says.
While some lines are being blurred by mistake, others are being intentionally erased, especially when it comes to COVID-19 scams.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, which has been rattled by a COVID-19 outbreak, a government news release this week warned residents about a phone scam where “callers are asking people to pay for their COVID-19 pre-registration and vaccination.”
According to a Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre report, between March 6, 2020 and February 28, 2021, 11,789 Canadians fell victim to COVID scams promising faster testing, vaccinations and miracle cures. The centre estimates losses of $7.2 million.
Fraser says any confusion, whether malicious or unintentional, could make so-called “vaccine hesitancy” worse.
“It’s an additional thing that somebody is being forced to think about, when really, all they should be thinking about is how can I get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
The owners of two other pharmacy chains, Shoppers Drug Mart and Rexall, did not reply to our inquiries about their policies for vaccine registration.