COVID Shield could be a positive first step for privacy
But there is much more to do to substantively address COVID-19 and privacy
June 18, 2020 — Today Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the Federal government will be deploying COVID Shield, a COVID-19 contract tracing app based off of the decentralized API co-developed by Google and Apple.
The announcement follows sustained advocacy by OpenMedia and other civil society groups for any contact tracing app to follow seven key principles, including: being voluntary, anonymized, peer to peer, with minimal extension of government surveillance powers and clear limits on how any data can be retained and used. Unlike options the government has rejected, the proposed COVID Shield solution appears to meet most of these principles.
OpenMedia’s campaigns director Matthew Hatfield had this to say:
“Compared to alternative models, and given the government’s commitment to trying to find a technological solution to COVID-19, today’s announcement is a win for privacy. But this is by no means a panacea in the fight against the pandemic, and does not replace the need for widely available on demand testing, and human-driven contact tracing.
Hatfield continued, “Unfortunately, due to Canada’s weak and outdated privacy laws, users have no real accountability or protections should personally identifiable or de-anonymized data be collected and leaked or misused. If the government takes privacy as seriously as it is claiming to, it needs to introduce additional legal protections for this app, and a clear timeline for when we can expect the Privacy Act and PIPEDA to be updated. It’s outrageous that the Privacy Commissioner of Canada still does not have sufficient enforcement powers, and ongoing privacy violations continue to be met with no real penalties.”
“COVID-19 contact tracing apps have received a significant amount of attention throughout this pandemic, as countries grapple with how to allow people to return to ‘normal.’ But there is so much more the government needs to do concretely to help the country through this pandemic. Everyone is expected to continue work and schooling through online means for as long as public health officials demand. Yet millions of Canadians live in communities that lack sufficient high-speed Internet, or cannot afford the plans available to them. Every day of social distancing without adequate internet, they’re falling further behind. A technological solution is doomed from the start, when not everyone has access to the tools required.”
Public health officials in countries that have already deployed contact tracing apps have overwhelmingly reported that their benefit is modest – even in Iceland, with one of the highest adoption rates, where over 40% of the population is using the government’s app.
Detailed privacy questions about Canada’s deployment also remain, including uncertainty about who will be hosting the servers used by COVID Shield, and what oversight there will be to ensure that data hosted on them will be appropriately protected and deleted.
OpenMedia, the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG), and the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) put together seven privacy principles for contact tracing apps which you can view here: https://openmedia.org/sites/openmedia.org/files/joint_statement_digital_surveillance_technologies_and_covid-19_in_canada.pdf.
Nearly 11,000 people have called for strong privacy protections for any COVID-19 tracing app at https://openmedia.org/CovidPrivacy-pr.