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Can we protect digital privacy amid push to use phone data to fight COVID-19 spread?

Measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 are leading to potentially frightening privacy violations, says one Brock University expert. Here's how we stop it.

Proposed measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 will be valuable, but also invasive

Google and Apple are planning to push software onto people's phones, says Aaron Mauro, that will allow for "total" surveillance. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

The rush to slow the spread of COVID-19 is taking society into some troubling territory when it comes to digital privacy, a Niagara expert warns.

And Canadians need to make sure that data collection stops once the threat of the pandemic does, says another leading privacy expert.

Aaron Mauro, a Brock University assistant professor and author of the forthcoming book Cybersecurity and the Humanities, says as Apple and Google rush to push out a joint contact-tracing app to every smartphone, society needs to think about what that means.

Details will matter, such as whether people can opt out of using the app, whether it's pushed automatically to our phones, and how prone the system is to hacking. The data, Mauro says, will be invasive and valuable.

People need to know when the data collection will stop, he says, and how it can be used. When people are scared, he says, they're more willing to hand over their privacy. But corporations and governments don't always roll those measures back.

"There needs to be a clear chain of custody for the data," says Aaron Mauro, "and how it’s passed between government, industry and research." (Aaron Mauro)

"Contact tracing is really becoming a term Canadians will have to think about more deeply," said Mauro, a faculty member at Brock's Centre for Digital Humanities.

COVID-19 has prompted a race for new ways to slow the spread. The Apple/Google app would track contact between Android and iPhone users. This week, France called for relaxed privacy standards so public health agencies can use the data. 

Singapore's app TraceTogether is showing promise, Reuters reports, as are high-tech methods in South Korea and Israel. Britain's National Health Service is also piloting a contact-tracing app targeting 80 per cent of smartphone users. In St. Augustine, Fla., the city is handing out thermometers that show health officials people's temperatures

Digital innovations are important to track a pandemic, Mauro says. Contact tracing was key in slowing the 2014 Ebola outbreak. 

"You don't have to give up privacy to get public health," says Ann Cavoukian, former Ontario privacy commissioner. "That zero sum mindset of either/or is nonsense." (Paul Smith/CBC)

But apps pose many questions. If someone is caught committing a crime via the app, can it be used in court? Who sees the data, and how easily can it be hacked?

"The risk that we face is giving up our civil liberties to embrace a more accurate version of contact tracing," he said.

Mauro isn't alone in these concerns. Groups like OpenMedia and the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group have spoken out about increased digital surveillance.

Ann Cavoukian, former Ontario privacy commissioner, says any measures enacted need "sunset clauses, and solid end dates."

Researchers are always finding a balance between privacy and data usage, says Hsien Seow, director of ICES McMaster. (McMaster University)

The USA Patriot Act, implemented after 9/11, is an example of a government not rescinding powers after a crisis has passed, Cavoukian says. "These are not small, minor concerns."

"When you have a lot of fear, people think, 'I don't want to give up my privacy, but I have to to stay safe,'" she said.

"You can do both. That zero sum mindset of either/or is nonsense. You don't have to give up privacy to get public health."

Hsien Seow is the director of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences McMaster, a collaboration between the university, Hamilton Health Sciences and St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton. His work includes using data to improve health care.

Andrew Chang looks at the best way to clean your smartphone and how often you should do it. 1:07

Seow says the proposed measures for COVID-19 don't sacrifice much more information than people give up already. Many smartphone users already use location apps.

Data from Kinsa, a maker of "smart thermometers," is also intriguing, he says. When people use the thermometer, the company receives the temperature, and uses it to predict future COVID-19 outbreaks.

"Data is critical to help us make good, evidence-based decisions," he said.

Having said that, he says, any contact-tracing app should allow people to opt out. 

"We're always trying to balance individual freedoms and privacy with the public good."

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca

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