COVID-19 Invades and Compromises Our Privacy

By Ken Rubin

April 20, 2020 - COVID-19 puts privacy rights under attack. Zoom-bomers, COVID-19 scammers, and cellphone trackers are gaining ground as Canadians self-isolate.

With the necessity of greater cyberspace interactions, the crisis continues to introduce or enhance more grounds for privacy invasion.

Contact tracing, for instance, becomes important to tackling the COVID-19 virus. Using wireless smart phones to identify people's movements puts potential or actual infected people under a microscope. Technology apps may tell people too when to self-isolate and who is not doing this. 

Using the video-conferencing Zoom tool to stay in touch and hold meetings while being kept at home can and has lead to privacy breaches and intrusions even if precautions are taken.

Scam artists are taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis trying personal phone calls and internet excursions with fake cures and identity theft on their agendas.

Corporate profiteers are taking advantage with jacked up prices, by building new market profiles, storing new information on people's financial health or by withholding crucial information about their long term facilities.

Enforcement of social isolation for health reasons can lead to unwarranted government actions and fines and snitching. 

At the same time, claims are being made that sensitive personal information being collected by authorities remains secure and is used only as unidentifiable aggregate information during the public health emergency, even when gathered with facial recognition apps or by drone surveillance or thermal cameras.

But governments using emergency, quarantine, lock down and border control powers to monitor residents and foreigners are demanding and getting more personal information for multi-purposes saying it is in the public interest. They want more aggressively to search for hot spots and incidents of COVID-19 outbreaks and to catch those in isolation breaking home stays. 

They also like to remind cheaters trying to game the new financial aid systems for wage subsidies that they can run computer checks on people collecting such assistance. New personal information data bases are being put in place and new cross checks being done.

Front line first responders in Ontario get the go-ahead to collect sensitive personal data from labs and medical authorities, but without clear guidelines on sharing and retention timelines. 

Fear, trade-offs and a public health crisis appear to be overwhelming privacy consent and restrictive use of personal information conditions. Some jurisdictions, like British Columbia, are relaxing privacy rules. Plans for limited federal privacy act reform are on hold. But newer privacy legislation when introduced may broaden what personal information can be collected, used and stored in times of public health emergencies. 

Right now, those affected may not be able to access data about their being traced and have even less than operative and timely privacy appeal rights. Currently, extending the uses personal information is put to, can lead to discriminatory practices, more third party interactions and be part of previously unheard of privacy data breaches. 

Privacy used to refer to physical intrusions into your personal home spaces. In a modern state and economy, privacy becomes a balancing act between personal information protection and public and corporate needs under certain regulations. In many jurisdictions, separate legislative treatment was given to protecting individual health records.

Terrorism, 9/11,and foreign state spying brought a whole new world of security surveillance and screening and powers for security intelligence agencies and a shift in what the public could know and expect. 

COVID-19 with its capabilities of spreading or because it could be but one emerging pandemic, could end up setting newer widespread barriers to privacy protection, too.

In the past, personal health information and records has been considered a prime personal matter and perceived to be a matter to be left free of unnecessary state snooping or of widespread publicity about health cases. 

Controlling the use made of one's personal health information, however, may be shifting and become a thing of the past. 

Public interest group monitoring of the growing loss of health privacy and individual privacy rights is happening. But it's going to take a concerted effort with the media reporting on privacy violations and breaches to get anywhere. 

It's a crisis within a crisis.

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This story was first published by The Hill Times on April 20, 2020, and is republished here with the author's and The Hill Times' permission.

Ken Rubin has championed greater transparency for over five decades and is reachable at kenrubin.ca. He is an investigative public interest researcher, author and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Free Expression.

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