COVID-19 pandemic reveals major gaps in privacy law, says watchdog

As it pushes more and more Canadians online to work and shop, the COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating the need for better laws on data use and privacy, the country’s privacy watchdog warned MPs today.

“This year, the COVID-19 pandemic makes the significant gaps in our legislative framework all the more striking,” wrote Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien in his annual report, tabled in Parliament today.

“With the pandemic accelerating the digitization of just about every aspect of our lives, the future we have long been urging the government to prepare for has arrived in a sudden, dramatic fashion. This rapid societal transformation is taking place without the proper legislative framework to guide decisions and protect fundamental rights.”

Therrien said most interactions taking place online now — such as remote work, socializing with friends, logging into school or discussing health issues with a doctor —  use commercial videoconferencing technology.

“For example, telemedicine creates risks to doctor-patient confidentiality when virtual platforms involve commercial enterprises. E-learning platforms can capture sensitive information about students’ learning disabilities and other behavioural issues,” he said.

“This is particularly concerning given our current privacy laws do not provide an effective level of protection suited to the digital environment.”

Canada needs laws that set limits on permissible uses of data, he said, and do not rely “on the good will of companies to act responsibly.”

He also said the pandemic has stirred up heated debates about privacy, including questions about the government’s contact tracing app (on which Therrien was consulted) and about Canadians being asked for personal health information or required to undergo temperature checks at airports or before entering workplaces and stores.

The privacy commissioner’s office has long argued for enforcement powers to go after those who violate Canadians’ privacy — including the ability to make binding orders and impose consequential administrative penalties for non-compliance with the law.

His office is also asking the federal government to define privacy as a human right.

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