How a severe pandemic might affect your personal information

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Now that Canada has officially entered the “second wave” of the H1N1 flu season, and the United States President has proclaimed the H1N1 pandemic to be a national emergency, Canadians are staring at the possibility of a significant flu outbreak. The sense of concern and urgency about how to respond to this situation presents interesting challenges for protecting the right to privacy.

As anyone who has stood in the long lines to get the new H1N1 vaccine can tell you, preparing for the potential disruptions in our daily lives as a result of the flu outbreak may well be new territory for organizations, employees, as well as customers. And business continuity plans don’t always address important privacy questions!

To help bridge this gap, we’ve developed guidance for organizations and a fact sheet for employees to explain how privacy laws apply in the private sector workplace during the H1N1 pandemic. This important work was prepared in consultation with our counterparts in Alberta and British Columbia.

Right now, in Canada’s current “non-emergency” situation, it’s important to remember that privacy laws apply in the usual way. For example, employers can collect only the minimum amount of personal information necessary to meet a business need.

However, it’s a different story if an emergency is declared. For example, if an outbreak is declared to be a public emergency, the powers to collect, use and disclose personal information to protect the public health may be very broad. Privacy legislation would not prevent the sharing of information in the event that H1N1 is declared to be an emergency pandemic.

This guidance will be updated as circumstances warrant.

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