A strong sense of regional sovereignty in the Canadian health care system may lead to different choices for technologies to track and contain the spread of the coronavirus. A multiplicity of non-interoperable apps could put their effectiveness in question and could create inconsistent approaches to privacy.
Canada’s national capital Ottawa is located in the province of Ontario but sits on the border with Quebec. As soon as restrictions on movement and activities due to the coronavirus begin to lift, the workforce will once again flow in both directions across a river that separates the two provinces. As with other countries around the world, Canada is debating how to use technology to prevent a second wave of infections. Yet as it stands right now, there is a chance that commuters between Ontario and Quebec could have different contact-tracing apps installed on their phone to track their movements, and that these apps might not be fully interoperable.
Innovation in contact-tracing apps is happening in real time, and amid serious concerns about privacy and security. In Canada, many provinces are on the threshold of adopting contact-tracing apps. Canadian app developers, building on technologies adopted elsewhere, will be offering solutions that rely on decentralized, centralized, or partially centralized data storage. At least one Canadian-built app proposes broader functionalities, including AI-enhancement. And, as is often the case in Canada, its federal structure could lead to a multiplicity of different apps being adopted across the country.
Provinces and municipalities consider variety of solutions
Canada is a federal state, with 10 provinces and 3 territories. Under its constitution, health care is a matter of provincial jurisdiction, although the federal government regulates food and drug safety. It has also played a role in health care through its spending power, often linking federal health spending to particular priorities. However, when it comes to on-the-ground decision-making around the provision of health care services and public health on a regional level, the provinces are sovereign. Canadian federalism has been tested over the years by Quebec’s independence movement, and more recently by dissatisfaction from Western provinces, particularly Alberta. These tensions mean that co-operation and collaboration are not always top of mind.
When it comes to adoption of contact tracing apps, there is the distinct possibility in Canada that different provinces will make different choices. On May 1, Alberta became the first Canadian province to launch a contact-tracing app. There have been reports, for example that New Brunswick is considering a contact tracing app from a local app developer, and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador has also indicated it is considering an app. Other governments contemplating contact tracing apps include Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The possibility that multiple different apps will be adopted across the country is heightened by reports that one municipal entity – Ottawa Public Health – may also have plans to adopt its own version of a contact-tracing app.
Although different contact-tracing apps may not seem like much of an issue with most Canadians under orders to stay home, as restrictions begin to loosen, the need for interoperability will become more acute. If non-interoperable contact-tracing apps were to be adopted in Ontario and Quebec (or even in Ontario, Quebec and Ottawa itself), their individual effectiveness would be substantially undermined. Similar situations could play out in border areas across the country, as well as more generally as Canadians begin to travel across the country.
On May 5, 2020, Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, called for a national strategy for contact tracing apps in order to prevent fragmentation. His call for cohesion no doubt recognizes the extent to which Canada’s sometimes shambolic federalism could undermine collective public health goals. Yet with so many provinces headed in so many different directions, often with local app developers as partners, it remains to be seen what can be done to harmonize efforts.
Centralized or decentralized storage – or something in between?
The international privacy debate around contact-tracing apps has centred on limiting the ability of governments to access data that reveals individuals’ patterns of movement and associations. Attention has focused on the differences between centralized and decentralized storage of data collected by contact-tracing apps. With decentralized data storage, all data is locally stored on the app user’s phone; public health authorities are able to carry out contact tracing based on app data only through a complex technological process that keeps user identities and contacts obscure. This model would be supported by the Google/Apple API, and seems likely to be adopted in many EU states. These apps will erase contact data after it ceases to be relevant, and will cease to function at the end of the pandemic period.
By contrast, with centralized data storage, data about app registrants and their contacts is stored on a central server accessible to public health authorities. A compromise position is found with apps in which data is initially stored only on a user’s phone. If a user tests positive for COVID-19, their data is shared with authorities who then engage in contact tracing. As an additional privacy protection, express consent can be required before users upload their data to central storage. This is a feature of both the Australian and Alberta models.
Decentralized storage has gained considerable traction in the EU where there are deep concerns about function creep and about the risk that user contact data could be used to create ‘social graphs’ of individuals. The European privacy debates are influenced by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and its shift toward greater individual control over personal data. In Canada, although the federal privacy commissioner has been advancing a “privacy as a human right” approach to data protection, and although there has been considerable public frustration over the state of private sector data protection, little public sentiment seems to have galvanized around contact-tracing apps. Although Canadians have reacted strongly against perceived overcollection of personal data by public sector bodies in the past, in the pandemic context there seems to be a greater public willingness to accept some incursions on privacy for the public good. What incursions will be acceptable remains to be seen. The federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners (with the notable exception of the Alberta commissioner whose hands have been somewhat tied by the launch of the Alberta app) have issued a joint statement on the privacy requirements to be met by contact-tracing apps.
Privacy concerns over secondary use of data
The Alberta contact-tracing app has received the cautious endorsement of the province’s Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton who described it as a “less intrusive” approach (presumably than full centralized storage). She noted that she had reviewed the Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) (a study done to assess the privacy implications of the app), and was still seeking assurances that collected data would not be used for secondary purposes. She also indicated that the government had committed to the publication of a summary of the Privacy Impact Assessment, although no date was provided for its eventual publication.
Given the attention already paid to privacy in Europe and elsewhere, and given that Australia’s similar app was launched in conjunction with the public release of its full PIA, the Alberta launch should set off both privacy and transparency alarms in Canada. In a context in which decisions are made quickly and in which individuals are asked to sacrifice some measure of privacy for the public good, sound privacy decision-making, supported by full transparent PIAs, and an iterative process for rectifying privacy issues as they emerge, seems a minimum requirement. The release of the Alberta app has also created a gap in the common front of privacy commissioners, and raises questions about the interoperability of contact-tracing apps across Canada. It remains to be seen whether Canada’s federal structure will lead not just to different apps in different provinces, but to different levels of transparency and privacy as well.
This article was also published on Teresa Scassa's blog on May 15, 2020.