Canadians need to be ready to make decisions about the kinds of surveillance they are willing to accept to manage the COVID-19 pandemic and for how long, says a Brock University professor and expert in digital privacy.
“We must consider the ethical questions regarding a widespread surveillance program before these decisions are made from a position of desperation,” says Aaron Mauro, Assistant Professor with Brock’s Centre for Digital Humanities.
“We are in the midst of a crisis, so we need to anticipate the next decisions the government will make so that citizens will be better able to voice concerns in an informed way,” he says. “We might make decisions during the pandemic that would ignore very pressing and important issues, so we need to consider them in advance.”
These issues include the length of surveillance, who will be authorized to access the data, how the data will be used, the difficulty of ensuring anonymity, consequences of data leaks and the preservation or destruction of collected data once the pandemic passes.
Google and Apple are rapidly developing a tracking system as part of their cell phone operating systems. Initially planned for use in the U.S., it will use Bluetooth technology to record the proximity of individuals for contact tracing.
While this sort of tracing by public health professionals is often a time consuming, labourious and inexact process, the data collected through cell phone technology could quickly and anonymously notify individuals who may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. However, citizens must be willing to divulge their location as well as their social encounters continuously.
Mauro points out the success of Singapore, which developed a voluntary model using the open source tracing app called TraceTogether. Cellphone tracking is also being used in South Korea and telecommunications companies in Italy, Germany and Austria have been sharing data with government authorities.
A number of Canadian companies are reportedly in talks with various levels of government to develop similar tracking systems for use in Canada. Health Canada has already collaborated with a Vancouver-based tech company to develop the Canada COVID-19 app and self-assessment tool for voluntary reporting of symptoms.
“Moments of crisis throughout history have been used as an opportunity to infringe upon civil rights and grant extraordinary powers to government,” says Mauro. “COVID-19 is similar to the 9/11 terrorist attacks because it is a genuine crisis in which a fearful citizenry is now willing to grant these exceptional powers to legislators in the name of public safety.”
While the Canadian government has not committed to using cell phone surveillance, it also hasn’t ruled it out.
“If Canadian governments choose to use this data, it will be important to include judiciary oversight to both limit the use of this information and eventually shut down these programs and delete their data after the crisis is over,” he says.