Alberta privacy commissioner investigating Babylon by Telus Health

Alberta’s privacy commissioner has launched two investigations into Babylon by Telus Health, a virtual medical app touted by the provincial government. 

App described as 'virtual walk-in clinic' has visits paid for by Alberta Health

Using Babylon, an app developed by Telus Health, patients can have one-to-one video consultations with doctors, with the cost of those virtual visits covered by the government of Alberta. (Telus Health)

Alberta's privacy commissioner has launched two investigations into Babylon by Telus Health, a virtual medical app touted by the provincial government.

The investigations were opened after concerns were identified in separate privacy impact assessments (PIAs) submitted on the app by a Calgary-based physician and Babylon Health Canada Limited, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta said in a news release Tuesday.

A government spokesperson said Telus Health submitted a privacy impact assessment for Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton to review in May 2019, as required under the provincial Health Information Act (HIA).

"Of course, we fully expect Telus Health and physicians to comply with all applicable laws and regulations and work with the Information and Privacy Commissioner to address any concerns going forward," Steve Buick, press secretary to Health Minister Tyler Shandro, said Tuesday in an email to CBC News. 

According to Tuesday's news release, Clayton's office usually works with a company to resolve issues identified in a privacy impact assessment, but in this case the app was launched in Alberta before she could provide an assessment.

Since the app was already in use "and compliance concerns were identified during the PIA review," Clayton decided to open an investigation of her own into the Calgary-based physician's use of the app, the news release said. Opening the investigation provides Clayton with more powers under the legislation, it added.

The other investigation will determine whether Babylon Health Canada Limited is complying with the Personal Information Protection Act.

In an email, Telus spokesperson Jill Yetman said the company will comply with the privacy commissioner's investigation. 

"Both TELUS and Babylon welcome the opportunity to clarify the strength of our privacy program for Babylon by TELUS Health, and look forward to working collaboratively with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta to supply the additional information requested to showcase that we are meeting or exceeding the privacy requirements," Yetman wrote.

Clayton is giving no timeline for the completion of her reviews. Last month, a spokesperson for her office said it could take a year or more.

In the meantime, Clayton reminded the public that there is no requirement to use Babylon. 

"I encourage physicians or patients with concerns about this app to remain opted out of using it while my office reviews the app's compliance with Alberta's privacy laws," she said in the news release. 

Babylon is a partnership between Telus Health and the Alberta government. 

The app allows people to consult with physicians, book appointments, get prescriptions and referrals and check symptoms, including those of COVID-19. The services are covered under Alberta's health care insurance.

Critics worry about privacy implications of the service, which Premier Jason Kenney described as a virtual walk-in clinic. 

David Shepherd, the health critic for the Official Opposition NDP, said the terms and conditions of the Babylon app state that "video recording of patient visits is copied and stored on Babylon's servers, and that the video may be shared with corporate partners and entities outside of Canada, including foreign governments." 

On Tuesday, Shepherd said he welcomes the privacy commissioner's involvement and looks forward to her report. 

"I am very concerned that [Health Minister] Tyler Shandro signed a contract, launched the app, and has energetically promoted it using his position as minister, all before these serious privacy issues were addressed," Shepherd said in a statement.

"It is yet another damning indictment of his performance as health minister. He must resign."