OTTAWA, ON (April 22, 2020): While Canadians share the common goal of containing the COVID-19 pandemic, we will eventually have to consider resuming some economic and other activities. Bearing in mind important privacy concerns, it is likely that innovative new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and contact tracing technologies would need to be deployed.

In a new MLI commentary, titled  AI and contact tracing: How to protect privacy while fighting the COVID-19 pandemic,” author Barry Sookman explores how AI and contact tracing technologies can be used to combat the pandemic and the challenges of deploying these technologies in Canada.

“People are rightly asking how we can gradually start to re-open the economy and resume ‘semblances of normalcy’ without triggering substantial negative health rebounds or violating privacy norms or rights,” explains Sookman. “A solution that is increasingly being relied upon is COVID-19 contact tracing.”

Artificial intelligence technologies are being used in multiple ways, including the diagnosis of COVID-19, drug development, and assisting in searches through a wealth of scientific literature for potential cures. AI has also been used for tracking and public surveillance via location data stored on or generated by smartphone use.

Contact tracing, which often relies on location tracking, allows for an individual who has had close contact with an infected individual to be identified and monitored. Furthermore, contact tracing can educate those who are infected to better understand their risk and limit the further spread of the virus.

Contact tracing as an epidemic control measure is not new and contact tracing using location tracking capabilities in smartphones has been implemented in countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) has also called for a pan-European mobile app to track the spread of the virus in EU countries.

“It may not be realistic or possible to stem the COVID-19 virus and return to a semblance of normalcy without using a sophisticated contact tracing technology,” writes Sookman.

Contact tracing solutions using mobile phone technologies all involve at least some collection, use, and disclosure of personal data. Their adoption will be influenced by a variety of factors including who implements the solutions, and whether the operators are subject to privacy laws, or are given any special immunities from liability under emergency orders.

However, Canada has a patchwork of privacy laws on the federal to provincial levels that could apply to the contact tracing solution and much would depend on the public or private entities, or combinations of organizations, that would be involved. This would make implementing contact tracing solutions challenging given the key difference between privacy laws across the country.

Additionally, there are numerous privacy considerations such who has access to any data including public authorities and for what purposes, whether the use of the solution is voluntarily or mandatory, whether users are anonymous, what is revealed by infected users to individuals they come in to contact with, and how reliable and secure the system is.

While privacy laws should not impede on the deployment of technologies during extraordinary circumstances such as a pandemic, these privacy considerations must be kept in mind by policy-makers.

“Privacy laws in Canada have always recognized the need for balancing of interests,” argues Sookman. “Privacy, as a moral or legal principle, does not trump all other laws or interests.”

Read the full commentary here.

Barry Sookman is a member of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s advisory council and senior partner with McCarthy Tétrault Technology Law Group. He is also a former leader of the firm’s Intellectual Property Group and recognized as one of Canada’s foremost authorities in information technology, copyright, Internet, privacy, data protection and cybersecurity, and anti-spam law.

For more information please contact:
Brett Byers
Communications and Digital Media Manager
613-482-8327 x105


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