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Privacy and public health can coexist with contact tracing app: Newfoundland and Labrador privacy commissioner

Michael Harvey is the Newfoundland and Labrador Information and Privacy Commissioner. CONTRIBUTED
Michael Harvey is the Newfoundland and Labrador Information and Privacy Commissioner. CONTRIBUTED


ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Newfoundland and Labrador Privacy Commissioner Michael Harvey says a balance can be struck between privacy and public health as the government explores digital contact tracing to track the coronavirus in the province.

On Monday, Health Minister Dr. John Haggie said the province is working on developing an application to be downloaded on smartphones that would allow public health officials to know whether a person came in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Haggie says in order for the tool to be effective, 60 per cent of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador would have to download the application.

While details of exactly how the application would work have yet to be announced, Harvey says there are ways to track people’s close contacts without giving away personal information.

In order to keep privacy top of mind, Harvey says, any information gathered should not be stored by the government — in other words, a decentralized model.

“The way the decentralized model would work is that people would download an app on their phone. When that’s happening, my phone is broadcasting a little gibberish identification code that is associated with my phone. But that’s the only thing that it's broadcasting,” said Harvey.

“Let’s say we’re within two metres of each other for more than five minutes, then your phone just records only the little gibberish code. Your phone doesn’t know who I am, doesn’t record where we were in contact with each other. It just records the gibberish.”

In the event of a close contact, the application could inform the person that they’ve been in contact with someone who is COVID-19 positive and instruct them to contact public health officials accordingly.

“If it works like that, then there is no central database of personal health information. Contact tracing is occurring without tracking. That is the kind of thing that is possible. But the devil is in the details here,” he said.

As reported by allNewfoundlandLabrador.com, Verafin is working with the provincial government to develop the application. A request for comment from Verafin was not returned by deadline.

David Fraser, a Halifax-based privacy lawyer with McInnis Cooper, says it’s important that any information gathered by such an application be kept by public health officials and not be used by other arms of government, particularly law enforcement.

“Ontario recently issued an order that allows all first responders — including the police — to have access to the database of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19. There’s no apparent limitation in that order on who in those categories can access the information and what they can use it for,” said Fraser.

“In that environment, I would have a significant amount of mistrust and suspicion and concern about putting a public health app on my phone for contact tracing. But if I had assurances that the information would only be used for those purposes and it would only go to public health, I would install that app in a minute.”

david.maher@thetelegram.com

@DavidMaherNL

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