/Bains pressed for details on how government will ensure data privacy amid COVID-19

Bains pressed for details on how government will ensure data privacy amid COVID-19

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said the federal government is prioritizing privacy as it considers implementing contact tracing apps, but provided no details on how the government plans to do so, arguing the discussion is still all hypothetical at this point. 

Bain’s comments came Thursday at the House industry committee’s teleconference meeting, in response to a question from committee vice-chair and Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner. The Tory industry critic said she isn’t sure the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) would apply to contract tracing apps that aren’t developed commercially, and pressed the minister on the federal government’s plans to secure data privacy. 

“What part of PIPEDA would apply to an app that’s developed pro-bono?” Rempel Garner asked. “Would you say it’s a fair characterization to say that functionally nothing really exists to prevent this data from being sold, to say, an insurance company for the use of, let’s say premium settings, considering that Canadian health data is worth considerably more than $100,000?”

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indicated earlier this week that the federal government is open to implementing contact tracing apps to facilitate the re-opening of the economy, as businesses have been forced to keep their doors closed in recent weeks in bid to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“As we move forward on taking decisions, we’re going to keep in mind that Canadians put a very high value on their privacy, on their data security,” Trudeau said in his daily press briefing Wednesday. 

Data tracing apps work by sending users notifications when they may have been in contact with someone infected with COVID-19. The technology, being built by the likes of Apple and Google, uses Bluetooth signals to determine proximity to other users. Companies like Clearview AI and Palantir Technologies have said they’re working on developing apps pro-bono in an effort to help governments around the world fight the virus.

In response to a question from Rempel Garner, Bains said he couldn’t say which provision in PIPEDA would apply to a contact-tracing app, calling the discussion is hypothetical at this time because a specific app hasn’t been chosen. He added that the federal government is in still discussions with the provinces and different companies about possible solutions.

“And of course, PIPEDA and the Privacy Act would apply,” he said of any products the federal government might choose to endorse. 

He also noted that privacy breaches are subject to a fine of $100,000 for each incident. 

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But, Rempel Garner took issue with Bain’s characterizing the discussion as hypothetical, noting that Trudeau already opened the door to contact tracing and that discussions with tech companies are on-going. She said the federal government should negotiate with the tech firms using a formal privacy consent framework to ensure Canadians’ privacy should they seek to access an app.

“When you’re engaged with companies, what are you telling them?” she said. “Especially since PIPEDA might not apply.”

“We haven’t endorsed any particular app,” Bains responded. 

Rempel Garner also wanted to know if Bains had informed provincial governments on the privacy “gap” to which Bains did not give a clear answer. 

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