Teresa Scassa - Blog

Tuesday, 24 March 2020 09:17

Private sector data, privacy and the pandemic

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked considerable debate and discussion about the role of data in managing the crisis. Much of the discussion has centred around personal data, and in these discussions the balance between privacy rights and the broader public interest is often a focus of debate. Invoking the general ratcheting up of surveillance after 9-11, privacy advocates warn of the potential for privacy invasive emergency measures to further undermine individual privacy even after the crisis is over.

This post will focus on the potential for government use of data in the hands of private sector companies. There are already numerous examples of where this has taken place or where it is proposed. The nature and intensity of the privacy issues raised by these uses depends very much on context. For the purposes of this discussion, I have identified three categories of proposed uses of private sector data by the public sector. (Note: My colleague Michael Geist has also written about 3 categories of data – his are slightly different).

The first category involves the use of private sector data to mine it for knowledge or insights. For example, researchers and public health agencies have already experimented with using social media data to detect the presence or spread of disease. Some of this research is carried out on publicly accessible social media data and the identity of specific individuals is not necessary to the research, although geolocation generally is. Many private sector companies sit on a wealth of data that reveals the location and movements of individuals, and this could provide a rich source of data when combined with public health data. Although much could be done with aggregate and deidentified data in this context, privacy is still an issue. One concern is the potential for re-identification. Yet the full nature and scope of concerns could be highly case-specific and would depend upon what data is used, in what form, and with what other data it is combined.

Government might, or might not be, the lead actor when it comes to the use of private sector data in this way. Private sector companies could produce analytics based on their own stores of data. They might do so for a variety of reasons, including experimentation with analytics or AI, a desire to contribute to solutions, or to provide analytics services to public and private sector actors. There is also the potential for public-private collaborations around data.

Private sector companies acting on their own would most likely publish only aggregate or deidentified data, possibly in the form of visualizations. If the published information is not personal information, this type of dissemination is possible, although these companies would need to be attentive to reidentification risks.

In cases where personal data is shared with the public sector, there might be other legal options. The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) contains a research exception that allows organizations to disclose information without consent “for statistical, or scholarly study or research, purposes that cannot be achieved without disclosing the information, [and] it is impracticable to obtain consent”. Such disclosure under s. 7(3)(f) requires that the organization inform the Commissioner in advance of any such disclosure, presumably to allow the Commissioner to weigh in on the legitimacy of what is proposed. The passage of a specific law, most likely on an emergency basis, could also enable disclosure of personal information without consent. Such an option would be most likely to be pursued where the government seeks to compel private sector companies to disclose information to them. Ideally, any such law would set clear parameters on the use and disposal of such data, and could put strict time limits on data sharing to coincide with the state of emergency. A specific law could also provide for oversight and accountability.

The second category is where information is sought by governments in order to specifically identify and track individuals in order to enable authorities to take certain actions with respect to those individuals. An example is where cell phone location data of individuals who have been diagnosed with the disease is sought by government officials so that they can retrospectively track their movements to identify where infected persons have been and with whom they have had contact (contact-tracing).This might be done in order to inform the public of places and times where infected persons have been (without revealing the identity of the infected person) or it might be done to send messages directly to people who were in the vicinity of the infected person to notify them of their own possible infection. In such cases, authorities access and make use of the data of the infected person as well as the data of persons in proximity to them. Such data could also be used to track movements of infected persons in order to see if they are complying with quarantine requirements. For example, public authorities could combine data from border crossings post-spring break with cell phone data to see if those individuals are complying with directives to self-quarantine for 14 days.

The use of private sector data in this way could be problematic under existing Canadian privacy law. Telcos are subject to PIPEDA, which does not contain an exception to the requirement for consent that would be an easy fit in these circumstances. However, PIPEDA does permit disclosure without consent where it is ‘required by law’. A special law, specific to the crisis, could be enacted to facilitate this sort of data sharing. Any such law should also contain its own checks and balances to ensure that data collection and use is appropriate and proportional.

Israel provides an example of a country that enacted regulations to allow the use of cell phone data to track individuals diagnosed with COVID-19. A podcast on this issue by Michael Geist featuring an interview with Israeli law professor Michael Birnhack exposes some of the challenges with this sort of measure. In a decision issued shortly after the recording of the podcast, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the regulations failed to meet the appropriate balance between privacy and the demands of the public health crisis. The case makes it clear that it is necessary to find an appropriate balance between what is needed to address a crisis and what best ensures respect for privacy and civil liberties. It is not an all or nothing proposition – privacy or public health. It is a question of balance, transparency, accountability and proportionality.

It is interesting to note that in this context, at least one country has asked individuals to voluntarily share their location and contact information. Singapore has developed an app called TraceTogether that uses Bluetooth signals to identify the phones of other app users that are within two metres of each user. The design of the app includes privacy protective measures. Sharing personal data with appropriate consent is easily permitted under public and private sector laws so long as appropriate safeguards are in place.

A third category of use of personal information involves the public sharing of information about the movements of individuals known to be infected with the virus. Ostensibly this is in order to give people information they may need to protect themselves from unwanted exposure. South Korea offers an example of such measures – it has provided highly detailed information about the location and movements of infected persons; the detail provide could lead to identification. Given the fact in Canada at least, testing has been limited due to insufficient resources, a decision to release detailed information about those who test positive could serve to stigmatize those persons while giving others a false sense of security. Some have raised concerns that such measures would also discourage individuals from coming forward to be tested or to seek treatment out of concerns over stigmatization. In Canada, the disclosure of specific personal health information of individuals – or information that could lead to their identification – is an extreme measure that breaches basic personal health information protection requirements. It is hard to see on what basis the public release of this type of information could be at all proportionate.

A common theme in all of the debates and discussions around data and privacy in the current context is that exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures. The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred national and regional governments to declare states of emergency. These governments have imposed a broad range of limitations on citizen activities in a bid to stop the spread of the virus. The crisis is real, the costs to human life, health and to the economy are potentially devastating. Sadly, it is also the case that while many do their best to comply with restrictions, others flaunt them to greater or lesser extents, undermining the safety of everyone. In this context, it is not surprising that more drastic, less voluntary measures are contemplated, and that some of these will have important implications for privacy and civil liberties. Privacy and civil liberties, however, are crucially important values and should not be casual victims of pandemic panic. A careful balancing of interests can be reflected not just in the measures involving the collection and use of data, but also in issues of oversight, transparency, accountability, and, perhaps most importantly, in limits on the duration of collection and use.

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