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Should Canada be able to track our location during COVID-19?

By April 15, 2020 No Comments

While many citizens are vocal opponents of invasive apps and programs, the truth is the majority are comfortable with the tradeoff in the name of the collective health of our nation.

Early in April,  Alberta Premier Jason Kenney outlined his COVID-19 “relaunch strategy” including but not limiting to conducting 20,000 COVID-19 tests per day and enforcing quarantine orders. This, he added, might potentially include using smart phone apps to track movement.

When the pleas to stay at home and distance from others isn’t enough, should Canada turn to tracking our locations?

Many countries already using the technology

It could take some cues from countries already using the tech. In Poland, the government released a “home quarantine” app that requires people in quarantine or self-isolation to periodically send selfies of themselves to prove they’re following government protocol. The app sends users an alert requesting a geo-location and a photo of themselves. If they don’t send a photo within 20 minutes, police are notified and the user is fined. 

In Singapore, citizens are using an app that uses Bluetooth to track whether they’ve been near anyone who tested positive for the virus. South Korea passed legislation that allows health officials to track citizens using location data from cell phones, credit cards or car navigation systems.

Several other nations including Ireland, the UK and Australia,  are considering implementing similar forms of technology in their countries. It seems conceivable that Canada could be next.

The problems with tracking technologies

Oh and by the way, if you aren’t aware, you’re already being tracked.

Google is using anonymous and aggregated location data from Google Maps across 131 countries to track movement patterns in the era of social distancing.

According to Google, there’s been a roughly 59 per cent decrease in traffic to recreational sites like restaurants, cafes, libraries and museums. 

In Canada, visits to grocery stores and pharmacies have dropped by 35 per cent compared to pre-pandemic levels. Visits to parks have dropped by 16 per cent.

Google’s executives said that the data was meant to assist public health officials. But that begs the question: who told Google they should be doing this?

No one. There’s no level of accountability. And that’s the biggest problem with using these technologies. It comes at the expense of our privacy and civil liberties.

While I could spend time raising larger questions about who should be accountable for the use of these technologies, I’d like to focus on a single important element; our citizens. 

Before the pandemic, we were being tracked. Every time we allowed an app to access our contacts, camera or credit card information, this was stored. Every time you asked Google for directions, you enabled your location and allowed yourself to be tracked. 

For many of us, this was OK because convenience trumped the idea of privacy. It was OK to let Google track your every step if it meant you got to your destination in time. It was fine to let Apple remember your credit card information if it meant you wouldn’t need to bring your wallet to the store.

We are largely compliant with the tradeoff of convenience for our privacy. Even in a pandemic, many citizens are more than willing to let governments or companies track their phones if it means stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

And who could blame them for this? While many citizens are vocal opponents of invasive apps and programs, the truth is the majority are comfortable with the tradeoff in the name of the collective health of our nation.

But the right to privacy and our civil liberties should not be carelessly tossed aside. Leaping to full and unaccountable surveillance without a second thought is dangerous. Any time a government gains additional powers, they are rarely revoked afterwards unless forced to do so. In addition, there are no real means for us to control the surveillance capabilities and behaviours of companies like Google, save maybe turning off your location data. 

Future plans demand more accountability

There are more plans, specifically by a partnership between Google and Apple, to create contact-tracing apps to track COVID-19 infections via smartphone. The app would use Android and Apple users Bluetooth radios to keep track of whether the user has come in contact with someone who has COVID-19 and alerts them if they do so. The companies plan to make the app accessible to public health organizations. 

Google and Apple claim that their technology won’t compromise your location. But as Cristina White, a Stanford computer scientist mentions in the WIRED article,  there are still potential privacy issues. For example, while Apple and Google plan to only upload anonymous identifiers, servers could identify COVID-19 users in other ways including using their IP address. 

But before I paint a picture straight out of Orwell’s 1984 for you, I’ll admit there are some roadblocks to the widespread tracking of Canadians.

At the federal level, the Emergencies Act does not specify for the collection of personal data in a pandemic. And while the provinces could use emergency laws to order for telecommunication companies to hand over data, it would likely be subject to the courts.

The point remains the same. There’s a fine balance between privacy and health. This balance should be respected.

If Canada intends to use these measures for our health and safety, a few points should be understood. First, the request for tracking is proportional to the risk of our health and safety. Authorities need to clearly demonstrate the dire need for such technologies. Second, complete transparency is needed. Yes, this means asking individuals to consent to tracking. Finally, this measure should come with a clear expiry date when the pandemic is over.

But let’s also take this opportunity to overcome the myopia of the dilemma and focus on the bigger issue. Tracking of phones or devices on any scale whether for the sake of our health or convenience needs to be subject to the same requirements I listed above. We need to demand accountability and transparency even if none exists.

Imagine your boss. You might like them, you might not. But I’m certain if they walked into your house without your permission and started rummaging through your things, you’d like them even less.

Treat your devices with the same protectiveness as you treat your home. Don’t just let anyone in. They need to ask you first, and there better be a good reason why they should enter.