Image: Mizzou CAFNR/Flickr

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, all kinds of technological solutions have stepped in to fill many of the gaps left in so many of our lives. Millions of people are now working online at home; students are doing distance learning; and we’re using a variety of online platforms to stay connected with our friends and family. We’re also depending on technology to order medicine and food, and to organize our communities to help the most vulnerable. 

Technology provides for so many of our needs right now — but could it also hold the key to directly containing and stopping the coronavirus?

That’s what some countries think, and they’ve been using different technologies for all sorts of tracking and containment. Some examples are lower on the scale of invasiveness: In some European countries like Italy and Germany, mobile carriers are sharing aggregated location data with governments to help them monitor whether people are complying with restrictions on movement, and identify potential contact hot spots. 

But other uses of technology are incredibly intrusive and consequential for our privacy and rights. The government of Poland is requiring quarantined people to use an app to take and submit regular selfies to prove they’re at home, and is sending police to the homes of people who do not comply. In Taiwan and Bahrain, infected individuals are “geo-fenced” at home with cell phones or electronic bracelets that alert authorities of movement outside of a permitted area.  

One of the most globally popular methods emerging is something called proximity or contact tracing, which uses the bluetooth function on cell phones to record all the people you’ve been near. If a person tests positive for the virus, alerts can then be sent to anyone who was in contact with them. Both Apple and Google are launching system level technology in their products that will enable contact tracing apps. 

Privacy experts are already sounding the alarm on these products. Location data, if gathered, can reveal sensitive, private information about peoples’ lives. Even supposedly anonymized data can sometimes reveal individual identities — and data leaks and hacks of supposedly secure databases are unfortunately common. Many people are also concerned that any changes to laws that permit the government or companies to gather data on us will remain in place after the crisis is over, as we’ve seen before in legislation brought in after the 9/11 attacks. 

The biggest question of all is whether these measures are even effective or deliver benefits worth the considerable privacy concerns. There are doubts around the reliability of the technology: for example, geolocation data could identify two people on either side of a wall in adjoining apartments as being “close” to each other. Lower income people who live in high density housing could be affected by much higher false positives from technology like this, as well as having less access to cell phones at all, or struggling to pay internet bills. 

And of course, contact tracing requires testing at scale to even identify infected individuals — something which isn’t available in most countries right now. Simple support systems like providing cheap high-speed internet and financial assistance to people who need it helps people stay in their homes — and don’t involve any surveillance. 

So what’s Canada’s plan for tracking technology? Alberta has announced plans to enforce quarantine compliance by app; it is unclear if other provinces will follow. Federally, Justin Trudeau hasn’t ruled out using smartphone data to track locations and identify if people in Canada are complying with pandemic measures. 

To make sure that our privacy is protected as much as possible if these measures come to Canada, a group of Canadian privacy experts and organizations recently released a set of guidelines:

1. Prioritize approaches to help people stay at home which do not involve surveillance;

2. Ensure new powers are adopted through the due process (Parliament, courts, etc.);

3. Favour approaches that respect consent; 

4. Put strict limits on data collection and retention;

5. Put strict limits on use and disclosure;

6. There must be oversight, transparency and accountability;

7. Any surveillance efforts related to COVID-19 must not fall under the domain of security, law enforcement or intelligence agencies.

There’s no doubt that these are extraordinary times. But good decision-making can only come from carefully considering the cost to our privacy, values and human rights. We must hear clearly from our government that our rights are prioritized and that these principles will be respected. 

You can access the full version of these principles here.

Victoria Henry is a campaigner at OpenMedia, a community-based organization that works to keep the internet open, affordable, and surveillance-free.

Image: Mizzou CAFNR/Flickr

Digital Freedom Update

A monthly column from OpenMedia looking at digital policy issues, including free expression, access to the Internet, and online privacy. OpenMedia is a community-based organization that safeguards the...