Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that the federal government currently is not using cell phone data to curb the spread of COVID-19.
During a televised federal update, Trudeau did note that “all options remain on the table to do what is necessary to keep Canadians safe in these exceptional times.”
Although the government isn’t using these measures now, it recognizes that it may be a necessary step to take eventually.
“We recognize that in an emergency situation, we need to take certain steps that wouldn’t be taken in a non-emergency situation,” Trudeau noted.
This comes after Toronto Mayor John Tory said that the city was going use cell phone data to see where people aren’t practicing social distancing. The city then walked back Tory’s comments and said that it wasn’t using cell phone data, and doesn’t have such data.
Countries like South Korea and Israel have been using cell phone data as a means to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The data is used to track infected patients’ movements to determine who else they may have infected.
University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist writes that although in normal times Canadians would be strongly opposed to the collection and use of location data, we are currently not in normal times.
“Rather than asking whether to use the data, the question is likely to be under what circumstances and with what safeguards and oversight,” Geist writes.
He states that there are clear benefits when it comes to phone, social media and search data that could allow for more efficient responses to health risks.
Geist notes that safeguards, appropriate oversight and penalties would be needed, but that most importantly, the powers for data collection would have to be temporary. He notes that the practices should require approval for short term use.
He outlines that given the privacy risks surrounding location tracking, it should not become the new normal and that proper regulation is what is required to ensure this.