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September 8, 2020

The following is an op-ed by Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien about privacy protection as digitization accelerates in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was published in the Hill Times.

The value of data, the values of privacy

By Daniel Therrien, Privacy Commissioner of Canada

The pandemic has made clear the importance of science, data and technology in addressing a public health crisis and its many social and economic consequences. It has accelerated the digitization of our lives, moving more of our activities online in an effort to remain safe.

Recent contributors to the Hill Times have advocated for digitization as the way forward and out of the pandemic. Health scientists are also calling for increased use of data to support public health and better health care.

The federal government, meanwhile, is also looking at ways to increase digitization. This includes initiatives to promote data-driven decision-making, greater data sharing, and making data more accessible.

There is no doubt that technology and data have been very helpful, and that they will play a major role in a successful recovery. They can, and do, serve the public good.

Yet, as the pandemic underscores the relevance of these factors, we must urgently consider how to derive the value of data while respecting our democratic values and fundamental rights.

While videoconferencing and telemedicine platforms allow us to work, socialize and receive health and education services online, these technologies also create important new risks to our privacy. For example, telemedicine creates risks to doctor-patient confidentiality when virtual platforms involve commercial enterprises. E-learning platforms could capture sensitive information about students’ learning disabilities and other behavioural issues.

And as we turn to data-dependent artificial intelligence to improve decision-making, we must give serious thought to its impact on equality and other fundamental rights.

Risks to privacy and other rights are heightened by the fact that the pandemic is fueling rapid societal and economic transformation in a context where our laws fail to provide Canadians with effective protection.

Surveys tell us up to 90% of Canadians have lost confidence that new technologies respect their privacy. Canadians want to – and need to – enjoy the benefits of digital technologies, but they want to do it safely. They want to participate and develop in a digital society without fear of the watchful eyes of technology firms or government.

So the question becomes, how do we extract the benefits of technology while addressing citizens’ lack of trust?

The benefits of drawing value from data should not come by ignoring privacy or giving it a secondary role as a suggested best practice that can be too easily set aside to achieve other goals.

On the contrary, I firmly believe that privacy and innovation brought about by new technology are not conflicting values and can be achieved at the same time.

A recovery based on innovation will only be sustainable if it successfully protects the interests and rights of all citizens. These can, and should, be reflected in our laws.

My office has proposed an approach to reform our laws that would formally recognize privacy as a fundamental human right, but one that is not absolute.

Laws should permit the use of personal information in the public interest. Responsible processing of personal information can serve public goods such as health, economic growth, and better public policies and programs.

Open government can and must be achieved while respecting privacy and protecting personal information.  This means considering both the benefits and risks of the release of public datasets, including aggregate data. There must be particular attention for sensitive data such as health and location information and in cases where there is an impact on vulnerable populations.

Unfortunately, our current federal laws do not provide a level of protection suited to the digital environment.  Too often, we have seen rights violated in the pursuit of interests far removed from the public good.

Canada has fallen behind, while many of our trading partners have spent the past decade building up robust protections for data protection.

Respect for privacy rights should not be a suggested best practice left to the goodwill of government officials or big tech. It should be a clearly codified and enforceable requirement.

We need a legal framework that will allow technologies to produce benefits in the public interest while also preserving our fundamental right to privacy. This is an opportune moment to demonstrate to Canadians that they can have both.

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