Nations around the world are rapidly widening their tactics to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus.
For many, the pleas to stay home and distant from others haven’t done enough. The worsening pandemic has some officials looking at a more invasive but powerful tool to flatten the curve — people’s phones.
While not the “Canadian way,” using personal data to track populations is not out of the question for Canada, said Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto.
“I wouldn’t take anything off the table or close the door to anything under these difficult circumstances,” he said.
“But you can’t deal with a problem you don’t fully understand — tech or not. Until we have solid baseline data, these things may not be as useful as they sound.”
Poland is the latest country to take on such measures.
The government released an app that requires people in quarantine or self-isolation over COVID-19 to periodically send selfies of themselves to prove they’re following the orders. The Home Quarantine app will send users an alert requesting a geo-located photo of themselves. If they don’t send the photo within 20 minutes, police will be notified and people can be subject to fines.
The U.K. isn’t far behind. British health officials are exploring the idea of using location-tracking technology for contact tracing.
A study out of the University of Oxford, published in the journal Science, has recommended the government use an app to track the GPS locations of phone users, allowing them to report if they start feeling ill and, if tested positive for the virus, ultimately alert everyone they had recently had close contact with.
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Both Poland and the British researchers say the apps aren’t solely for tracking — or punishment — but can also help connect people to health and social services.
Either way, “that would never be compatible with Canadian society,” said Bowman.
“These things become very George Orwell, 1984. It’s remarkably similar in that way. We worry that this pandemic would be the thin edge of the wedge to introduce these types of things. That is a concern.”
In Canada, while there is a chance the provinces could lean on emergency laws to order telecommunications companies to hand over user data, it would likely be subject to a court challenge.
At the federal level, the Emergencies Act does not provide for the collection of personal data in a pandemic.
Canada’s chief public health officer said while all “innovative methods” should be examined, a “proper balance” is needed.
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South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore have used similar means effectively, but that reflects a different understanding of governance, said Beth Coleman, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology.
“We understand civil liberties and a right to privacy. The conflict we’re seeing is a clear need to communicate with residents of cities and countries about how we can behave to help contain this health crisis,” she said. “But the issue is, we don’t have enforcement measurements in the same way as some other countries do.”
In Singapore, citizens have been asked to use an app that uses Bluetooth to track whether they’ve been near anyone who tested positive for the virus. South Korea passed legislation that allowed health officials to track citizens, as well, using location data from cellphones, car navigation systems and credit-card systems.
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If the data is only being used to flatten the curve, there’s a case to be made for using some of these tools, according to Coleman, but it will be a hard sell in Canada.
“If there’s a clear argument that they won’t be abusive and, once we’ve dealt with the crisis, it’s not the new normal, I think people would consent to give up a certain aspect of privacy,” she said.
“But in Canada, we don’t have that granular ability to control a household unless we turn it into a kind of martial law… So how do we get a civic collaboration to getting good information and providing the supports that go with this?”
Even if it got that far, Canada’s “information deficit” around COVID-19 cases and testing numbers could ultimately render some of these tools useless, said Bowman.
“Technology is not going to fix that deficit in Canada. Our government’s doing everything they can to close that gap, but unless we have baseline data, I don’t know how useful it’s going to be,” he said.
“We would have to be absolutely certain that we have solid data if we ever went in that direction.”
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He also brought up the risk of hacking.
“Hacking isn’t going away — it’s an arms race, essentially,” he said. “It’s a significant risk of all these emerging technologies. No one’s going to figure out how to stop hacking tomorrow.”
Coleman said it comes down to this: “We need to absolutely show from public health that the request for the technology is proportional to the risk, that there’s complete transparency, that individuals can consent, and that there’s a clear expiry date when, in fact, we get past this situation.”
“I think we need more information on all of that.”
— with files from Global News’ Patrick Cain and the Associated Press
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