Coronavirus: Could Alberta use smartphone apps to track patients, enforce quarantine?

Alberta’s premier outlined Tuesday what the province’s COVID-19 peak and recovery could look like. Jason Kenney also spoke about his government’s plans to roll out its “Relaunch Strategy” once COVID-19 peaks in the province.

READ MORE: ‘Probable’ Alberta COVID-19 model predicts 400-3,100 deaths: Kenney

In addition to “an aggressive system of mass testing,” completing as many as 20,000 tests a day, Kenney spoke about tracking cases, stronger screening and quarantining.

“We will strictly enforce quarantine orders to ensure compliance, including using technology like smartphone apps when appropriate,” Kenney said.

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The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta said it was “short on details” regarding the premier’s comment on movement tracking.

“As we’ve said from the start of this public health emergency, privacy laws still apply but are not a barrier to appropriate information sharing,” OIPC communications manager Scott Sibbald wrote in an email to Global News.

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“The main focus right now is — and should be — public health, but there are several unknowns about how an app would be deployed and what laws would be engaged by doing so.

“Any option being considered is sure to have privacy implications that would require reasonable safeguards to protect personal or health information. The commissioner expects to be consulted on the various initiatives being explored by the government of Alberta.”

When it comes to contact tracing and location tracking, Ontario’s former privacy commissioner has big concerns.

“We will not live through this in terms of privacy and freedom,” said Ann Cavaoukian, who is also one of the founding members of Global Privacy and Security by Design.

“The pandemic is going to end, but the new surveillance practices that are exploding right now – arguably justifiably – they have to have firm sunset clauses.”

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Cavaoukian stressed this kind of data must be non-identifying, aggregated, and the collection of it must have a set end date. Otherwise, she’s very worried people will continue to be tracked and surveillance will abound.

READ MORE: Is giving up your phone privacy a fair trade if it slows coronavirus spread?

“You can still do the same thing by de-identifying the data. They gather the movements — where’s it strong? Where is it fluctuating?

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“You don’t need to erode people’s trust, people’s privacy, people’s freedom in the process.”

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The app suggestion is an ever bigger red flag for Cavaoukian.

“Please! Are you kidding me? Apps are notorious for lack of privacy and security measures. They’re outrageous.”

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In mid March, Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, started using cellphone location data to track the movements of people who tested positive for COVID-19 and to identify people who had been in contact with them and should be quarantined.

Singapore publishes a surprising level of information about its citizens with the new coronavirus.

Taiwan has a system that alerts police if COVID-19 patients (or, rather, their phones) leave their homes or turn their phones off.

India gives coronavirus patients indelible hand stamps with the date their quarantine is supposed to end, and tracks the movement of their phones.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus — Trudeau rules out phone-based surveillance for now

On March 24, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada wasn’t preparing to adopt similar measures — yet.

“I think we recognize that in an emergency situation we need to take certain steps that wouldn’t be taken in a non-emergency situation, but as far as I know that is not a situation we are looking at right now,” he said in answer to a question about phone-based surveillance.

“But … all options are on the table to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe.”

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Edmonton developer Aaron Clifford said technology to do this could likely be created by a strong team in about a month.

The challenge, Clifford said, is the issue of balancing public health with privacy.

“As a developer, I feel like it’s definitely a privacy minefield.

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“But, with that being said, it’s not an impossible one to navigate. There’s definitely a lot of very talented developers right here in Alberta and I think there’s more than a few who are up to the task.”

Clifford said it wouldn’t be a “heavy” app and would be compatible with older phones as well.

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“You’d be using an installed app and the built-in GPS on the phone to track the location of people. Ideally, what you’d want is something that is end-to-end encrypted so that the personal data stays on an individual’s device and then all of the navigation data that gets uploaded to the server is encrypted and very well kept for.”

READ MORE: Google releases location data from billions to show if coronavirus lockdowns working

Clifford, a senior producer at KOVR, said we already have similar infrastructure installed on most of our phones.

“You can opt in to have Google track basically everything that you do over the course of a day,” he said.

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“The key thing to remember here is that it’s tied to your health data and that’s where it becomes scary for people. That’s where you’d definitely need to be very, very careful. Essentially what I would envision is that the information that’s kept on a government-controlled server would be non-identifiable.”

READ MORE: Countries opt for phone tracking amid coronavirus — should Canada?

He said the government would have to consider ways to incentivize people to use the app.

“I’d like to see it set up so that’s it’s opt in and there’s a benefit for people to opt in,” Clifford said. “So, if you’ve been infected, then you should be given the option to use this and receive some sort of additional service or maybe… it’s tied to additional money for food because you’re avoiding going out.”

There’s also the issue of access, Clifford said.

“You would have to have a device that’s on and connected 24 hours a day for this to work.

“In a situation like this, you’re only as protected as a society as your most vulnerable, and that means you’d have to figure out a way to get this in the hands of people who need it the most and possibly don’t have the ability or the income to support having a device on 24 hours a day.”

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Provinces could probably use emergency laws to order telecommunications companies to hand over user data, Carleton University lecturer Leah West said on a recent podcast. But that would be subject to challenge in the courts.

“You could potentially say that they could create some sort of massive order that would require telcos to hand over their data. But I think that that would be really susceptible to a challenge as not being proportionate or necessary to manage this crisis.”

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But at the federal level, Canada’s federal Emergencies Act, passed in 1988, doesn’t provide for the collection of personal data in this kind of emergency.

“In the context of a public welfare emergency, (there is an) enumerated list of things that the government can make orders and regulations about. Surveillance is not one of them. That would be different if we’re talking about a different type of emergency,” she said.

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— With files from Patrick Cain, Global News

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