Nfld. & Labrador

Public health can override privacy, but it's not happening yet: Privacy commissioner

Privacy commissioner Michael Harvey said he has some concerns about privacy, but the current situation calls for extraordinary measures.

Privacy commissioner has some concerns with forms, but not intervening

Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael Harvey says he won't make a fuss about privacy concerns given the current state of the emergency, with 24 cases of COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Under normal circumstances, information and privacy commissioner Michael Harvey would have issues with the forms intended for reporting people alleged to have violated orders under the public health emergency.

But given the current state of the emergency, with 24 cases of COVID-19 in the province, Harvey said he's not going to make a fuss about it.

"These are extraordinary times and they call for extraordinary measures," Harvey told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show. "We do ask that people be privacy-sensitive but, again, these are times that call for things that three weeks ago nobody thought would ever be required."

The forms are available online and are meant to identify people refusing to isolate after returning from travel, or other irresponsible actions that contradict the orders of Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, Newfoundland and Labrador's chief medical officer of health.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary will be tasked with following up on the tips, and it is possible people could be arrested, similar to a situation that happened in Quebec City on Friday.

Harvey said he would normally have issues with the amount of personal information required to be filled out, including a person's name, home address and phone number.

He's written to the Health Department and asked them to destroy the forms once the pandemic passes.

No good to be nosey

In times of emergency, the Public Health Protection and Promotion Act can override things like privacy legislation.

That means health officials could, in theory, release a lot more information about people infected with COVID-19.

But Harvey — along with Fitzgerald, Health Minister John Haggie and Premier Dwight Ball — say it can only be done if it is absolutely necessary for the safety of citizens.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald speaks at a provincial briefing on COVID-19 on March 21. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

"The minister and the chief medical officer of health are authorized to disclose information so that it serves public health," Harvey said. "Not because people want to know. There's an important difference there."

"We're not releasing any further information that could potentially identify individuals at this time," Fitzgerald said on Monday. "However, if there was information that needed to be released for public health and safety, we would do that."

What about TB?

The Department of Health and Community Services has identified specific communities affected by tuberculosis outbreaks in the past.

Before he was privacy commissioner, Harvey worked in the health department during a TB outbreak in 2018.

He said their disclosure of information in that case has to be taken in context — community leaders and family of affected patients had already gone public about the location of the outbreak.

"The context was very different and I will say a significant amount of discussion went into when to disclose," he said.

During Monday's news conference, Haggie was clear they would not be releasing more information for two reasons: privacy, and avoiding a false sense of security.

"It really is not going to serve anyone's purpose by people thinking, 'Oh well, it's only in that community down the road so I don't have to worry' … and blame someone for the fact they become sick. Those are not helpful responses," Haggie said.

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